Counties in West Virginia are responsible for a lot of bills — including the cost of housing inmates from the county being held in regional jails. That makes the 81% increase in inmate population from 2000-2019 a problem for some counties.
That population increase was one finding in a report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy released this month. The report found the state’s regional jails are primarily used to hold people who are awaiting trial. Each has been charged with a crime but are unable to afford bail.
From 2014-19, jail billing outpaced jail spending statewide. Payments by counties to jails increased 0.3% in that time while the total bill increased 7%.
Monongalia County’s bill increased from about $1.8 million in 2017 to $2.25 million for this year, according to information provided by County Administrator Rennetta McClure.
Mon County is fortunate to be able to keep up with the bill costs, McClure said. She knows some other counties have struggled.
County Commission President Sean Sikora said, “It’s 6% of our budget so it’s nothing to not keep an eye on.”
Preston County’s regional jail bill is one of the biggest expenses in its budget and will likely top $1 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, officials say.
As recently as 2015-16, Preston paid out $330,000 for regional jail fees. But as the opioid crisis hit home, so too did the jail bills. So far this fiscal year, Preston has budgeted $957,519 for the regional jail.
Former Preston Prosecutor Melvin S. Snyder III previously said most of the cases he prosecuted in the latter part of his career had a basis in addiction. From 2005 until his retirement last year, the number of felonies rose from 50-70 yearly to 160-180.
Preston Commission President Don Smith estimated the jail bill is close to 14% of Preston’s total $8.4 million county budget.
“It’s a big chunk of our budget, and it just seems like it keeps growing and growing,” Smith said.
The Mon Commission has taken steps to decrease the bill, Sikora said. The commission, magistrates and sheriff’s office — all of whom have a role in the costs of the jail bill — meet quarterly.
One result of those meetings was the consolidation of arraignments — a defendant’s initial hearing where bail is set — to reduce the number of trips to Doddridge County.
Mon County inmates go to the North Central Regional Jail in Doddridge County. Preston uses the Tygart Valley Regional Jail in Barbour County.
Another possible way to reduce the bill in Mon County would be a sober house, or drunk tank, Sikora said.
As it stands, the only place in Mon County to hold inmates is the sheriff’s office, which has limited space and personnel. Chief Deputy of Law Enforcement Mark Ralston said they make a trip to the jail when they have five inmates or within about 8 hours.
Sikora said discussions about the sober house — which could be used to hold those who were drunk enough they needed arrested but not so drunk that they need to go to jail — are starting to take place again.
Sikora is a numbers guy, and if the numbers show a drunk tank could save, say 10% on the jail bill, then that would be $200,000 that could be put towards funding it.
“I’m not saying that we should let everybody out of jail. People who need to be in jail need to be in jail, but it’s getting very tough to set fingers on that kind of money,” Smith said.
Like county commissioners in other parts of the state, he wonders if there isn’t a better way.
“Some of it has to do with maybe we could use some alternative sentencing for certain non-violent crimes, things of that nature,” Smith said, mentioning home confinement.
It’s a tough call, he said, that magistrates and the judge have to make, not county commissioners.
He hopes law enforcement and the courts look at “why are you taking this person to regional? Why not take him before the magistrate on call and set bond and it may not even be a bondable offense. It may be something like release on your own recognizance.”
The County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia has sought to have the law changed so cities, for example, who send someone to jail would pay for the first day, Smith said, but cities statewide have fought it.
“That first day, if the responsible agency would pay the bill, that would really help,” Smith said. “The cities that pushed back on it, like Morgantown and Clarksburg, they arrest a lot of people cause of colleges and things like that.”
But, “I don’t think it’s going to bust their budget,” Smith said.