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Cost of housing inmates in W. Va. jails continues to rise

In fiscal year 2010, counties paid $47.50 a day to house inmates, but by fiscal year 2017, this had grown to $48.25

By Greg Jordan
Bluefield Daily Telegraph, W. Va.

PRINCETON, W. Va. — Regional jail bills continue taking big percentages of county budgets in West Virginia, so an association of county commissions hopes to again address the issue next time the Legislature meets in Charleston.

Local state senators and county commissions met this week with the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia to talk about upcoming legislative initiatives including the money counties pay to the regional jail system for housing inmates. Mercer County Commissioner Bill Archer and McDowell County Commission President Gordon Lambert attended the meeting at the Mercer County Courthouse.

Vivian Parsons, the association’s executive director, provided county-by-county figures from state Regional Jail Authority showing how jail costs have changed from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2017. For instance, McDowell County paid the regional jail system $1,061,862.50 in 2010. This figure had declined by 2017 to $831,974.75, a decrease of 22 percent; however, the bill still consumed 17 percent of the county’s budget.

Neighboring Mercer County paid $1,443,525 for jail services in 2010. By 2017, this sum had grown to 1,749,255.50, an increase of 21 percent. The jail bill was 13 percent of Mercer County’s budget. Wyoming County paid $731,738 for jail bills in 2010, but this had jumped to $1,005,144 by 2017. This rise was a 37 percent increase which consumed 19 percent of the county’s budget.

“Regional jails are always one of our top issues,” Parsons said.

“Dealing with the expense of the regional jail, the things that cause that expense to go up, that is a unifying issue for all counties across the state no matter how different regions may be in their economic development issues or resources big, small,” she said. “The regional jail bill is an issue for all of us.”

Parsons reviewed the local jail cost figures and how they varied between 2010 and the end of June 30 this year.

“You will find as you look as at those, for some counties it’s kind of a roller coaster of up and down,” Parsons said. “For some counties it’s a slow but sure progression of increasing costs, and we tried to look at what might be causing that.”

Figures from the state Regional Jail Authority have shown how jail bills are impacting county budgets even if the annual cost has declined in some cases. For example, while McDowell County’s annual bill declined by 22 percent, it still consumes an average of 15 percent from the county’s budget. Mercer County saw a 21 percent increase which takes about 15 percent of the county budget each year. A big part of these bills is what counties have pay for housing each inmate.

An important number to look at is the per diem rate, which is the daily cost of housing an inmate. In fiscal year 2010, counties paid $47.50 a day, but by fiscal year 2017, this had grown to $48.25. In 2012 and 2013, it was $48.80 before dropping to $48.25 in 2014, according to regional jail authority records. Most of jail bill increases all across the state have been generated by the opioid drug epidemic, Parsons said. Many of the inmates were jailed for drug-related offense or offenses such as burglaries committed to finance drug habits.

“So costs are going up, the per diem as staying pretty much the same, so that equals increased incarcerations,” Parsons stated. “We know that there has continued to be increased incarcerations across the state and we know that 80 percent of the arrests or thereabouts are due to substance abuse. It may not be a drug charge, it may be a domestic issue, but some way 80 percent is due to substance about whether alcohol or drugs, unfortunately. But West Virginia is not alone. The nation is dealing with those issues as well. Our national county commission has created a national opioid committee and Commissioner (Greg) Puckett from Mercer County serves on that national committee as well as Mayor Steve Williams from Huntington.”

Senator Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, said the Legislature has started a similar committee to address the opioid epidemic. Parsons said her organization would see about going before it about the jail bills and related issues. One of the problems is that paying for incarceration at the regional jails remains the counties’ responsibility for weeks before suspects who have been found guilty are transferred to the state Division of Corrections (DOC).

“You also know anybody arrested and processed through magistrate court becomes the responsibility of the county for the jail bill for that person,” Parsons said.

Silas Mullins, president of the Wyoming County Commission, said his county works with the prosecutor’s office “diligently every day” on checking the county’s jail bill; however, there are still factors the county can’t control.

“We’ve found that one of the biggest problems we have with the jail bill is that we have so many people sitting there, waiting for the judge,” Mullins said. Even though people are guaranteed a speedy trial, they can still sit in a regional jail for 60 to 90 days “on the county dollar” until a judge can hear their cases.

“You hit on our number one agenda item there. It’s a great lead in,” Parsons said.

There are multiple reasons why convicted inmates can remain a county expense for 30 to 90 days or more. A backlog in forensic testing can delay cases, she said. The state lab often loses forensics specialists to other agencies for more money after they gain some experience. Getting graduate students and fourth-year forensics students to help with the testing backlog is one possibility being explored, Parsons said. A lack of public defenders and the financial resources for them is another problem.

And after a person has been convicted or has pleaded guilty, there is yet another wait at the counties’ expense.

“Once they do get their day and court and are found guilty, that’s where this legislation would come in,” Parsons said. “I have been determined to be found guilty; now I’m entitled to what is called a presentencing investigation. And everyone has a right to that...those take anywhere from 30 to 90 days. While they’re sitting there waiting for that to be completed, the county is still paying the bill. They’ve been found guilty of a state offense, but while they’re waiting for that presentence report, the counties are still paying the bill because the statue says they roll over to the (Department of Corrections) at the time of sentencing. For counties, that’s another 30 to 90 days.”

When an inmate is switched to the state Department of Corrections, he or she is given credit on their state sentence for time served; but since the inmate was in a regional jail for those 30 to 90 days, state doesn’t pay for those days, she said. However, while a bill addressing the problem was introduced last year, there appears to be more interest in it for the coming legislative session; but the jail expenses could increase in other ways.

Jail correctional officers are difficult to retain due to low pay. While counties can’t disagree that regional jail officers are not paid enough money, there is a constant rollover in officers and vacancies because “the pay is lower than what they can get almost anywhere else,” she stated.

Increasing the officers’ pay has been discussed, but this would increase the daily cost of housing inmates by $4 a day, Parsons said.

“We’ve never seen a $4 increase at one point in time...there will be more than three or four counties that can’t pay if that shoots up by $4 a day,” she added. “I know that the correctional officers need to have more money, we need more of them and we need to keep them hired....we have escapes happening, contraband coming in. I think the regional authority is trying to hold on for a couple more years or three...until debt is paid on the regional jail building.”

Senator Chandler Swope. R-Mercer, asked Parsons how much new revenue could become available after the bonds which financed the regional jails’ construction are paid off. Parsons said she was not sure how much money this would be; funds raised by court costs paid by convicted suspects are split 17 ways. Jail construction bond debt is one of the recipients along with courthouse facilities and law enforcement training.

Another problem adding to jail costs is the “vicious cycle” of addicts who are arrested and then incarcerated,” Parsons said. They often do not get any treatment for their addictions, and the skills they learn while associating with experienced criminals – often drug dealers – leads them to dealing drugs, too, so they can pay for their habits, Parson said. However, there often is no rehabilitation center where the courts can send addicts, particularly the new ones. Ideas such as converting Sugar Grove Station, a former naval in Pendleton County into a drug rehabilitation center is one possibility. Helping addicts escape their drug habits instead of repeatedly sending them to jail is one way to reduce incarceration costs.

“There is no way to build enough prisons to get out of the situation,” Parsons said.

©2017 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.)