The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

July 23, 2013

Lawmakers eye jail inmate, staffing costs

Special accounts show cash balances totaling more than $61 million

CHARLESTON — West Virginia lawmakers are seeking more detailed figures from the state-run network of regional jails amid concerns raised Monday about staffing costs and the daily fees that counties must pay for housing inmates.

A House-Senate oversight committee hopes to hear from the chief financial officer of the Regional Jail and Correctional Facilities Authority at next month’s interim meetings, after reviewing several special accounts with cash balances totaling $61 million.

Senate Co-Chairman William Laird noted that more than half the amount reflects special reserves for repaying construction bonds and covering operating expenses during emergencies. But he questioned whether at least some of the rest shouldn’t be returned to counties burdened by the daily per-inmate costs.

“County commissions aren’t giving to libraries. There are lots of special projects at the local level that are being literally burned at the stake” because of jail fees, the Fayette County Democrat said. “Looks to me like we need a substantial reduction in regional jail costs to burn off what has been surplus resulting from what can only be an overpayment of what your actual cost requirements are to run the agency.”

Agency Director Joe DeLong told the committee that other revenue sources help account for those reserves, which have been built up over several years. Some of the money also is dedicated toward such nonpension retiree costs as health care, also known as other post-employment benefits, DeLong said. He said the per-day fee, which is around $40 compared with a national average nearing $70, isn’t the problem.

“We are just simply arresting and incarcerating far more people than we’ve ever done in the past,” DeLong said. “It’s a volume-driven issue.”

DeLong said the recent legislation targeting the state’s inmate crowding crisis should ease that situation over time. All 10 regional jails are overcrowded, partly because around 1,670 convicted felons are serving sentences in them for want of space in the state’s at-capacity prisons. The measure successfully sought by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin this year focuses on supervised released while revamping how offenders are assessed when they first enter the criminal justice system. Substance abuse treatment also is addressed by the enacted legislation, largely based on an in-depth study by the Justice Reinvestment initiative of the nonpartisan Council of State Government’s Justice Center.

DeLong also touted an experiment that added 14 staffers at the South Central Regional Jail last month. High turnover and vacancies among corrections officers helped lead to $7.2 million in overtime pay during one recent budget year. South Central saw personnel costs drop $18,000 in June, for a potential annual savings of $200,000, DeLong said.

The staffing experiment draws on research by West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics. Expanding the resulting staff schedule statewide could save between $1.5 million and $2 million a year, DeLong said.

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