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Who is paying for rising jail costs?

Regional jail costs have risen. Read more about the cost to Mon and Preston counties and what officials think could ease the burden HERE

By Will Dean and Kathy Plum 

State law makes counties responsible for regional jail bills for all people from their county, regardless who made the arrest.

And that can be a problem.

Jennifer Piercy, executive director of the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia, said regional jail fees have been on her members’ radar for years.

“And the reason why is there’s issues with cost-sharing,” she said.

Some counties split the bill with municipalities, she said. Elsewhere counties pay the whole bill.

 “Some counties don’t have revenue mechanisms like some municipalities do,” Piercy said. “Some counties are able to balance it better than others. It is a major, major issue, and it is a major focus for us and has been for a while.” 

And with COVID-19, people are spending longer in jail before their cases are decided.

Piercy said county commissioners keep the subject before state legislators.

Blair Couch is a county commissioner in Wood County and was recently elected chairman of the Regional Jail Authority Board.

Couch’s father was a county commissioner when the regional jail system was established, “and he just thought that was awesome,” Couch said. “Because counties were spending a lot of money on their jails, and they thought being under the state purchasing department, there would be cost-savings.” 

 And there are, Couch said, but five or six counties are now in arrears because those bills are becoming too much for them.

Possible solutions 

A recent Center on Budget & Policy report suggests a number of other ways to decrease jail bills across the state, including approving a bill that requires nonviolent offenders be released without a cash bail.

Locally, the report advised increasing use of home confinement, which costs $5-$12 a day and is paid for by defendants. It says counties should assume that cost because even at the maximum of $12 it’s significantly cheaper than the $48.25 daily jail cost.

The report also suggested a number of other options.

Counties have paid $48.25 since 2013, according to Lawrence Messina, who oversees communications for the state Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Divisions of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The DCR replaced the regional jail authority in managing the state’s 10 regional jails through the Bureau of Prisons and Jails, he said. The board still exists because the state is paying off the bonds that paid for the jails to be built.

In July 2020, the State Budget Office calculated the costs of housing an inmate at $54.88. But the law limits payment to $48.25.

The language in the current law relating to the expense expires in July and Messina said he believes the legislature will attempt to determine what counties pay towards housing inmates in the upcoming session.

The state’s lawmakers have also helped reduce the jail cost burden by passing a law in 2018 that turns the cost of inmate housing over to the state the day following the conviction, Messina and Couch said. Previously, counties paid the costs until the day after the sentencing order was entered — which can take months after a conviction.

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