Several West Virginia counties are falling behind in their bills to the state’s regional jail system. It’s a problem that comes up every few years, and it’s come up again.
As noted by HD Media’s Lacie Pierson in a recent article, Webster County is behind in its debt to the system by about $2.7 million. That’s about $22,000 less than the county commission’s total budget for the entire fiscal year.
Lincoln, Clay, Logan and McDowell counties each owe more than $1.1 million. Calhoun and Mingo counties both owe more than $350,000. Monroe, Ritchie and Marshall counties owe more than $5,000 apiece.
It could be worse. Counties are charged a daily flat rate of $48.25 per inmate, but the state estimates the actual cost is $54.88.
Meanwhile, the jail system is overcrowded. As of Friday, Jan. 29, the regional jails housed 5,782 people in a system built for 4,265.
The heart of the problem is that the local agency that pays the jail bill — the county commission — has little or no input on the number of people it must pay to house in the jail system. That number is determined by police, prosecutors and the court system.
Counties are responsible for the cost of inmates from their arrest until they are judged guilty or innocent. After a guilty verdict, they are the state’s responsibility. County commissions have no control over the speed of the legal process. But they do have at least one option. That is keeping some people out of jail and putting them into lower-cost options such as home confinement. As noted in the article, Cabell County has made some headway in keeping its jail bill down by relying more on home confinement.
Cabell County has saved about $3 million a year by ramping up its home confinement program, said county Commissioner Kelli Sobonya. In 2017, Cabell County was about $2.5 million past-due on its jail bill. Since then, commissioners, magistrates and the Sheriff’s Office have focused on increasing the county’s home confinement efforts and paid down its jail bill.
Cabell County hired enough home confinement officers to keep track of 150 people a month, about 50 more people than it could manage a few years ago, she said.
“Just by increasing home confinement by 50 people a month, we saved an additional $1.2 million a year,” Sobonya said. “That plays a large part in us being able to manage our bills.”
Funding the regional jail system is not as dominant in the public eye as repaving roads, installing new sewer lines or building new schools, but it is a basic function of state and local government.
Obviously there is a disconnect between what the Legislature requires counties to do and what counties are able or willing to do. It’s a gap that requires a long-term solution and different thinking.