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Once again, rising jail costs have counties on edge

Nov. 20, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

The idea of regional jails to serve West Virginia counties' needs for incarcerating people committing minor crimes or awaiting trial made sense at the time it came into being, and still makes sense today. After all, the regional jail system was created to help counties avoid the expense of millions of dollars to build individual jails to replace aging ones that no longer met standards.

But despite the good logic behind it, the system remains a thorny issue for many of the state's 55 counties because of the struggles they face in paying the tab for the 10 regional jails' operation. And once again, counties are seeking new ways to tackle what they see as a problem threatening their budgets and the other services they are supposed to provide.

The latest initiative aimed at finding new approaches -- or resurrecting ideas that haven't gone anywhere in the past -- comes from the County Commissoners' Association of West Virginia. It has formed a Regional Jail Steering Committee whose mission is to assess best practices from among counties in the state, determine weaknesses in the system in regard to costs, and push for changes during the 2013 legislative session.

Chairing the committee is Chris Tatum, who as Cabell County's manager knows full well the issue. Cabell County, more than any other, has been at loggerheads over the years with the state's Regional Jail Authority over the charges it applies to counties. For a period of years, Cabell County refused to pay its bill for incarcerating prisoners at the Western Regional Jail in Barboursville. The county even went so far as to sue the jail authority, but eventually was forced to pay its debt. However, the lawsuit elicited a response from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals that the Regional Jail Authority be more explicit in how it assesses charges to the counties and called upon the Legislature to provide relief.

The wrangling also prompted efforts by Cabell County to ease its jail-bill burden by developing alternative-sentencing programs to reduce its number of inmates. The result was such initiatives as a day report center for offenders and adult drug court. That helped bring the county's annual jail bill down to $2.7 million a couple of years ago. But since then, the jail bill has shot up past $3 million for the first time, to more than $3.4 million.

The steering committee will look at such issues as having arresting agencies within a county share in the jail expenses; speeding up court cases so defendants awaiting trial don't spend so much time in jail; instituting a probation program that would apply before a defendant even goes to trial; and giving the Regional Jail Authority more flexibility in calculating its daily charge for housing an inmate.

The good news is that the jail authority seems willing to work with the counties. It announced recently that starting next summer it will slightly reduce its daily per-inmate charge to counties because it had received surplus revenues from other sources. Joseph DeLong, executive director of the jail authority, also has indicated that agency is working on legislation for the 2013 session that would give the authority more leeway in figuring the daily charge.

It remains to be seen whether the commissioners association committee will come up with any significant recommendations that will put a dent in counties' jail bills, but the hope is it will. This issue is not going away, and more efforts to control costs are needed.

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