W.Va. lawmakers hit the road and hear concerns about regional jail costs
MORGANTOWN — Per diem fees for the state’s 10 regional jails remain frozen for another year, but county officials told members of the West Virginia Legislature Sunday that a permanent solution is needed.
State lawmakers met on the campus of West Virginia University in Morgantown Sunday for the first day of three-day legislative interim meetings. Morgantown is the first road trip for the Legislature this year.
Members of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority met in WVU’s Erickson Alumni Center Sunday afternoon and heard testimony regarding county payments of per diem costs for incarcerated inmates in the state’s regional jail system.
The Legislature capped regional jail per diem fees — the daily cost for someone incarcerated paid for by a county — at $48.25 per day. House Bill 4497, passed during the 2022 legislative session, continues the cap until July 1, 2023. Without the cap, per diem fees would be more than $54 per incarcerated inmate.
Committee Co-Chair David Kelly, R-Tyler, said he would like to create a working group with lawmakers and representatives of county commissions, sheriff’s departments, the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the court systems, and others to find a solution to the regional jail cost issues.
“It is my intention to have a work group that looks into this, and get at all the stakeholders to the table,” said Kelly, a former county sheriff and county commissioner himself. “I don’t think this has ever been done. This is a good opportunity for us to bring everybody to the table and have open discussions because…everybody in the room is suffering from this.”
David Price, a member of the Preston County Commission, briefed lawmakers on the financial struggles of his county when it comes to the cost of sending people to the Tygart Valley Regional Jail in Elkins — a three-hour round trip. The costs of transporting and to house incarcerating inmates at Tygart Valley makes up nearly $1 million of the county’s $9 million annual budget.
“I know it’s a tough nut to crack,” Price said. “There’s only one side to this jail problem, and that is to try to do everything we can to cut down the number of people that are sent there and the number of bills that we receive. You guys are smarter than me with this, but, but I know that that we need help.”
Price offered a number of ideas that could help allay regional jail costs to counties, including involving the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeal which oversees the state’s circuit courts and county magistrates. Price said there are inconsistencies in how one defendant is bonded and how another defendant is bonded for the same crime sometimes, resulting in one being released and the other being transported to a regional jail.
“One thing that might help is that if we would ask the Supreme Court to have the circuit judge or have a court clerk involved in meetings each week,” Price said. “We’re thinking if there could be some constructive work with the Supreme Court again or whoever the folks are that train and work with the magistrates, there might be a solution that would help there.”
Last month during April legislative interim meetings, a representative for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation told committee members that counties had saved a combined $100 million since the per diem rate freeze went into effect in 2018, with the state paying more than 60 percent of the regional jail tab.
West Virginia began the process of eliminating county jails in favor of a regional jail system starting in the mid-1980s. Regional jails hold both defendants who have not posted bail and people convicted of misdemeanor offenses.