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Government

WV Lawmakers May Help Counties With Jail Costs. But A Special Session Bill Is Only A Short-Term Fix

Capitol Dome, Capitol, Legislature
Perry Bennett
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West Virginia Legislative Photography
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This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter

Lawmakers will be in Charleston on Thursday for a special session, where they’re expected to work their way through a laundry list of appropriations for surplus dollars. Among them: roughly $9 million to delay a planned increase in the costs West Virginia counties pay for every person they commit before trial to the state’s regional jail system.

Many counties say they can’t afford the proposed increase — which, the state Budget Office estimated in July 2020 could cost counties 14% more per each person being held pre-conviction.

Take Webster County, which by Tuesday owed the state’s Regional Jail Authority roughly $2.8 million. Webster is further behind than any other West Virginia county on payments; it began falling behind back in 2012, when the county’s coal severance tax collections declined.

“We pay [the jail authority] what we can, when we can,” said County Commission President Dale Hall.

Webster is one of seven counties that has been behind on its payments for at least 90 days, according to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, which oversees state jails. Until recently, county leaders argued this list of indebted local governments would only grow, as the state budget office prepared to impose new, higher fees in July.

For every person sitting in a state regional jail pre-trial, the counties that arrest them must pay $48.25 per day to the Regional Jail Authority. That rate has been the same since 2013. In 2018, lawmakers capped those payments at that rate until July 1, 2021.

But while the county’s payments have remained the same, the amount that the state has to pay to house and feed people in jail has risen each year, from $53.20 in January 2018 to $54.88 in January 2020, according to a presentation from DHS officials to state lawmakers in June. In a written statement, DHS spokesperson Lawrence Messina said costs are increasing due to inflation, but also because state lawmakers agreed in 2018 to pay raises for corrections officers.

“We understand the counties have a problem with that fee, there’s no doubt about it,” said state Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel. “We understand it’s a difficult problem.”

By extending the moratorium for another year, lawmakers might be putting out an immediate fire, but state corrections officials warn the fees will only be higher during the next fiscal year.

In general, both counties and the state will have to pay more money if they arrest more people. Lawmakers say they’ve tried to address spikes in spending with laws that also tackle the state’s problems with jail overcrowding — by Wednesday, there were more than 5,400 people in the state’s 10 regional jails, which is 1,135 more people than they were designed to hold.

And even though the state has been paying the full cost for people in jails and prisons once they’re convicted — as well as for those enrolled in the “G.O.A.L.S.” recovery program for people dealing with substance use disorders — most counties still saw their jail bills increase because they arrested more people and waited longer for court trials.

“Comparatively, ours is not as large as many of the other counties,” Marshall County administrator Betsy Wilson Frohnapfel said. “But any increase hurts.”

In her county, that means cuts to other programs that could improve quality of life for residents.

In Webster County, their debt to the Regional Jail Authority alone means no pay raises for county workers, and no new positions.

“Who’s going to get paid this month?” Hall said. “And who’s not going to get paid next month to make up for this month?”

Kicking the can down the road

Even if lawmakers grant counties another year of reprieve, as expected, it just delays the inevitable increase another year. Meanwhile, changes to state law to reduce the number of people incarcerated in regional jails haven’t succeeded.

House Bill 2419, which took effect in June 2020, orders county magistrates to impose the least restrictive bail measures possible. For certain misdemeanor charges — mostly those that are nonviolent and non-drug related — the bill calls for magistrates to release people on a cash-free “personal recognizance” bond, so they can wait for trial outside of jail.

The law, which lawmakers adjusted earlier this year, also requires magistrates to hold a second hearing five days after they’ve jailed someone, to reconsider their bail requirements.

Although per-day increases were not discussed during the 2021 legislative session, several bills were introduced proposing that municipal police departments and other arresting agencies pay for who they commit to a jail, instead of counties.

None of those bills came up for a vote, and counties disagree on what would be most helpful.

After all, Webster County — the furthest in debt — has very few municipal police departments, and only three deputies under their county sheriff. Having the towns pay for their arrests doesn’t mean much in a county where State Police make most of the arrests.

In Ritchie County, where oil and gas industry payments buoy the revenue budget, County Commission President Stephen Worden says they’ve gone from paying $186,000 in fiscal year 2014 to $253,000 in fiscal year 2021 to the Regional Jail Authority — even though county payments per inmate per day have remained frozen.

“The jail bill is just a piece of the puzzle,” Worden said. In the same span of time, the county has gone from paying $1.5 million to $2.7 million on public safety, circuit courts and the prosecutor’s office.

For now, Ritchie County can absorb these increases.

But as the Legislature considers tax reform that might mean oil and gas companies pay less to the county — including a property tax exemption for business activity that’s on the ballot in the next general election — there’s concern about what the future holds for county budgets, especially with jail bills likely to finally increase next year.

Reach reporter Emily Allen at emilyallen@mountainstatespotlight.org


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