By Tina Alvey
With a burgeoning crime rate driven by the drug trade pushing jail populations up, Greenbrier is one of many counties in the state that finds itself scrambling to meet rising incarceration costs.
Speaking to the Greenbrier County Commission, John Doyle of the Regional Jail Authority outlined several cost-control measures that have been instituted recently in the state’s prison system.
He said that over the past 18 months, the authority has tried to “get (its) financial house in order,” putting everything from employment practices to purchasing decisions under the microscope.
As a result of the review and revamp, the Regional Jail Authority has seen measurable improvements in overtime costs, employee turnover and P-card purchases — reducing the amount charged on the government-issued credit cards from more than $1 million in fiscal year 2012 to $365,000 in fiscal year 2013.
The authority, Doyle told the commission at Tuesday’s meeting, has also remained focused on the prison overcrowding problem, noting that too many nonviolent offenders have been confined, at great expense to counties and the state. He pointed to Greenbrier County’s Day Report Center, which was recently recognized with a state award for excellence, as an example of what can be done to divert those nonviolent offenders from incarceration.
“It’s important that the rest of the state learns what you folks are doing here in community corrections,” Doyle told the commission.
Realizing the Regional Jail system needed “more cost-effective customer service,” Doyle said, the authority examined its fee structure and made adjustments. As a result, the fee charged to the U.S. government for housing federal prisoners rose from $50 a day to $65 a day, while the daily fee charged to counties for their prisoners dropped marginally from $48.80 to $48.25.
That small fee reduction saved West Virginia’s counties a cumulative $516,000 in the last fiscal year, Doyle said.
Thanking Doyle for the report, commission President Karen Lobban nonetheless took a gentle swipe at the authority, saying, “I’m glad you finally woke up after all these years.”
She told Doyle that there are further changes needed, citing counties’ cash flow woes that sometimes delay full payment of a monthly jail bill. The authority is less than understanding when a payment is occasionally short, Lobban said.
She also said the authority needs to adjust fees charged for late-day admission of prisoners, noting that currently the county is assessed for a full day for a prisoner who is taken to jail minutes before midnight and another full day for the day that begins at midnight. That means that a county will have to pay for two days of incarceration for a prisoner who may be in jail for only a few hours before making bail.
“This stuff is bankrupting some counties,” Lobban said.
Greenbrier’s Regional Jail bill averages around $50,000 a month, taking more than 5 percent of the county’s general fund budget annually.
Commissioner Woody Hanna also offered a suggestion, asking Doyle if the authority had considered purchasing food from West Virginia farmers and collectives, where feasible. Hanna said, even if the food ended up costing more, purchasing it locally in the same way some state schools are now doing would be worth the extra expense “to put the money into the hands of West Virginians.”
“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Doyle responded. “It’s conceivable we haven’t thought about that before.”
He said he would run the various suggestions by the authority and advise the commission of the agency’s response.
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