An already unpredictable and sizable cost for county taxpayers in West Virginia is about to take up even more of county budgets.
The daily rate to incarcerate an inmate in one of the state’s 10 regional jails increases by almost 14% on July 1.
County commissioners throughout the state learned in the spring the Legislature would not act to keep a cap on the daily rate, commonly referred to as the per diem rate, established in a 2018 law. Come July 1, the daily incarceration rate will increase from $48.25 to $54.88, based on the most recent calculations by the State Budget Office.
“I don’t know how some of these counties are going to survive this situation,” said Logan County Commission President Danny Godby. “It’s gotten to be a point to where all you’re going to be able to do is keep the offices open and not provide any activity for the general public ... I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The per diem has been artificially flat since the 2018 law that overhauled the administrative structure of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, which at the time was called the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
In that law, the legislature capped the per diem at $48.25 and required the State Budget Office to annually calculate the actual cost of incarcerating one person for one day in a regional jail.
In January, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said lawmakers had to do something about increasing jail bills.
“The county jail bill situation is a noose around the neck of every county in West Virginia,” the speaker said during the 2021 Legislative Lookahead hosted by the West Virginia Press Association.
State lawmakers advanced no bills dealing with the per diem rate.
That wasn’t welcome news in Logan County.
“The day that we found out that the per diem was going up was the day that we passed our budget,” Adkins said. “Five minutes before our meeting to pass our budget for this year, we were informed that the rule that kept it from [increasing] had sunset.”
As a result, the actual cost automatically kicks in for counties, the sole government entities responsible for paying the per diem rate. The state begins paying for inmates once they have been convicted of a crime.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said it is frustrating that county taxpayers carry almost the full load of paying jail bills when municipal and state police arrest the majority of the people held in regional jails.
With decreasing population and tax revenues, municipalities are no better suited than counties to pay the jail bills, he said. “I’m not going to pick on them. They can’t pay it.”
“I understand somebody has got to pay the jail bill. I get that,” Carper said. “Should county government have some of the responsibly? Of course, but under this system county commissions pay it all.”
During the six-month period from October to March, Kanawha County’s jail bills, which were the highest in the state during that period, totaled $1,571,213, based on calculations from quarterly billings provided to the Charleston Gazette Mail from the state Department of Homeland Security.
That’s equal to 32,564 inmate days in regional jails.
With the incoming rate, that many inmate days would cost Kanawha County $1,787,112.32, adding more than $200,000 to the bill.
Wirt County had the lowest jail bills during the same period at $5,693.50. Wirt County Commission President Teresa Murray did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.
The total cost of jail bills for West Virginia’s 55 counties from October to March was $22,091,455.50.
Under the new rate, that would increase to $25,127,027.50 for the same number of inmate days.
In Logan County, Godby said, it’s difficult for commissioners to make reliable budget projections because there’s no way to know how many people will be incarcerated.
During the same six-month period in 2020 and 2021, Logan, which had the 10th highest jail bill in the state during that time, was billed $734,509.75 for a total of 15,223 inmate days. That same number of inmates will cost Logan County $835,438.24 under the new rate.
Logan County was $589,905 behind on its jail bill at the start of the 2021 fiscal year, which began July 1, 2020, according to information provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
As of May 24, Logan County Administrator Roscoe Adkins said, the county commission was nearly up-to-date on those back payments.
Still, that did not ease Godby’s concerns.
“This has been our biggest problem originating in our counties,” Godby said. “I take pride in being able to help kids and kids’ programs and our seniors. We have really been unable to do some things that we once were because of the jail issue.”
Carper likewise was frustrated over having to dedicate so much money to the jail bill in the face of other pressing needs.
“Take $4 million or $5 million over 10 years, and that’s $40 million or $50 million,” Carper said. “We pay the jail bill, yet we could’ve done water projects, sewer projects, things like that, dealing with mental illness, helping those that are housing insecure — all of that and more.”
In Webster County, which tops all counties with a past-due jail bill of more than $2.7 million, “We live year-to-year,” commission President Dale Hall said.
“We can’t give employees raises,” he said. “We’ve got 25-year employees making $24,000 a year. It’s not right. We can’t give raises because we’ve got this big jail bill. It’s frustrating.”
Including Webster and Logan, 12 counties and one municipality, Huntington, were 90 days’ past due on their jail bills, according to information provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
The other counties with bills past due were Braxton, Calhoun, Clay, Hampshire, Lincoln, Marshall, McDowell, Monroe, Tyler and Upshur.
Webster was the highest, and Tyler County was the lowest at $48 past due.
The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation foots the difference when counties can’t pay.
“We have had meetings with the prosecuting attorney, the sheriff, and the magistrates,” Godby said of efforts to lower the jail bill in Logan County. “One of our biggest problems here is the bound-over people that are in jails. With that per diem per day, we were looking for faster ways, faster trials …not to let [defendants] out, but to get them to trial quicker and alleviate this big problem.”
In Kanawha County, Carper said, he stays out of the court’s business and instead focuses his efforts on lobbying at the state level, saying he supports bond reforms, getting rid of cash bonds and establishing the means for 24-hour arraignment so counties don’t have to pay a full day’s rate for people who only spend a few hours in jail between their arrest and arraignment in jails that already are overcrowded.
On Friday, 5,461 inmates were being held in 10 regional jails, which are equipped with 4,265 beds, according to COVID-19 data the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation provides to the Department of Health and Human Resources.
“We’ve got some very violent offenders in jail, and we’ve got some in there that never should have been put in there to begin with,” Carper said.
This month, Hall said, money the commission set aside to pay on its jail bill likely will pay for repairs to a faulty air conditioning unit.
“We’ve got to keep the employees cool,” he said.