West Virginia has more vacant job openings in the regional jail and correctional facility systems than it did in 2017 when Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency over staffing shortages in that system, lawmakers learned last week.
There are more than 800 vacancies in the jails and correctional facilities statewide, Brad Smith, chief of staff for the West Virginia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told members of the Joint Oversight Committee for the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority Dec. 6.
The state made “good progress” on filling vacancies after lawmakers approved pay raises for correctional employees in 2018, Douglas said, but the COVID-19 pandemic reversed that trend.
“We’re having the difficulties we were having years ago in recruiting and maintaining staff,” Douglas said.
In particular, there are “abnormally high” vacancies in facilities in the Eastern Panhandle, Douglas said.
Among the examples of low-staffed facilities, Douglas said the J.M. “Chick” Buckbee Juvenile Center in Hampshire County was at 44% of its staffing level, and Eastern Regional Jail is 52% staffed.
“It’s way worse than it was when I thought it was really bad,” he said.
The Gazette-Mail reached out to representatives in Gov. Jim Justice’s office Wednesday, and they did not respond to the request.
In addition to low staffing, the state’s jails and correctional facilities have $200 million of deferred maintenance to deal with, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeff Sandy told the Committee.
The state has accumulated about $17 million since paying off in June the bond sale that funded the construction of the regional jail system in the late 1980s and mid-1990s.
That money will go toward fixing existing problems, like issues with roofs on the facilities and later putting in filtration systems to deal with hard water, Sandy said.
Also during the meeting, Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett told lawmakers the $48.25 capped rate county governments pay per inmate, per day in the regional jails takes up anywhere between 12% and 15% of Mercer County’s total budget, and that’s before adding in the cost of taking inmates to and from Southern Regional Jail.
“If you take that existing [per diem] fee and calculate 20-to-25% more, that’s an accurate number to what the counties are seeing if their jails in a certain region are not in the counties that they serve,” Puckett said.
There were 5,126 people incarcerated in West Virginia’s 10 regional jails as of 3 p.m. Wednesday, according to a COVID-19 data report the Division of Corrections submitted to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
The jails are equipped to house 4,265 people.
The actual cost of incarcerating one person for one day in a regional jail in West Virginia is $54.13, said Jennifer Piercy, director of the County Commissioners Association of West Virginia.
That’s a lower cost than last year’s actual cost of incarceration, which was $54.88 per person per day.
The Legislature has kept the per diem rate artificially capped at $48.25 since 2018 in an attempt to alleviate some of the cost of incarcerating people in the state.
In 2018, county governments paid $52 million of the cost of incarcerating people in regional jails, and the state paid $34 million, Douglas said.
As of fiscal year 2021, which ended in June, the counties paid $42 million of that cost, while the state paid $59 million, he said, marking an increase of $26 million more the state and local governments spend to incarcerate people in regional jails.
“Now the majority of the cost of the jails is borne by the state,” he said.
The regional jails are meant to house people awaiting trial who either have no bond or have not posted bond and people who have been sentenced for misdemeanor and certain felony convictions. The regional jail system replaced the state’s aging county jails in the 1990s.
People convicted of more serious felony crimes are incarcerated in correctional facilities in West Virginia.
The state takes over the total cost of incarcerating someone once they are convicted of a crime.
Piercy said there are five counties with “serious” delinquency issues in paying their jail bills: Calhoun, Clay, Lincoln, McDowell, and Webster.
Webster County Commission President Dale Hall told the Gazette-Mail earlier this year that the county’s total budget was about $32,000 more than the debt it carries for its jail bill, which Piercy said last week was around $2.8 million.
Webster County commissioners don’t have the financial resources to grant pay raises to county employees and sometimes have to choose between things like fixing the air conditioning unit at the Webster County Courthouse or paying toward their jail bill, Hall said.
Piercy said last week that more counties would face such choices if the counties were made to pay the full cost of jail incarceration.
“I cannot speak to how many counties would not be able to pay their bill if the per diem does increase July 1,” Piercy said. “What I will tell you is that counties will be forced with making choices. It will be can they purchase a police cruiser? Can they fund senior services? Can they fund health departments? Can they help fund their volunteer fire departments? Counties are going to be placed in situations where it’s going to be what they can fund versus paying their jail bill.”
Lawmakers responded to the presentation with urgency during the meeting, with Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, saying jail bills and inmate population have been issues since he first was elected to the Legislature.
Romano said the situation with the state’s regional jails was “a ticking time bomb.”
“We’re going to bankrupt these counties, and we’re going to bankrupt them because they cannot pay this jail bill,” Romano said. “We need to figure out a solution on this. We’ve got to empty some of our jails. We’ve got to find alternative ways to incarcerate people who commit non-violent crimes.”
Delegate Mick Bates, R-Raleigh, suggested freezing the jail per diem rate for at least one more year to form a workgroup to see what sort of solutions lawmakers and interested parties could come up with.
“Obviously we need to act,” Bates said.
Committee Co-Chairperson David Kelly, R-Tyler, noting the age of the jails, said the Legislature had a lot of work to do.
“We have staffing issues,” Kelly said. “We have overcrowding issues. We have deferred maintenance issues. ...I understand what the counties are facing. We have to find a pathway forward to fix this. It’s certainly not a partisan issues. We are here to do something to try to fix these problems.”