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Kanawha jail bill under scrutiny again

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County officials are again looking at ways to rein in the county's escalating jail bill.

In October, county officials paid more than $397,000 to house inmates at the South Central Regional Jail. The bill was more than $40,000 higher than October of last year.

Though county officials are used to fluctuations in the cost of housing prisoners, Kanawha County Commission administrative assistant Kim Fleck said the bill has been higher than usual for four straight months.

"[The state] did raise the per diem for this year," said David Fontalbert, chief fiscal officer for the county. "I'm sure that's had an effect on it."

But county officials are trying to figure out exactly why the bill keeps going up, and what they can do about it. Fontalbert said the jail bill was running a little more than $350,000 a month last year, but has increased to about $400,000 a month.

Fontalbert said it costs about $4.3 million a year to house county inmates at South Central.

Shortly after taking office, Kanawha County prosecutor Mark Plants began a concerted effort to bring the jail bill down. Plants streamlined prosecutions so that prisoners spent less time in jail between court hearings. County judges also started sentencing prisoners more quickly, because once they're sentenced, the state picks up the costs of incarceration.

Those efforts were effective in bringing down the amount of time prisoners spent in jail, but state increases in the daily fee for housing prisoners and a larger number of arrests drove the jail bill back up.

County officials will get some relief next year. Last month, the state Regional Jail Authority voted to lower the jail per-diem rate from $48.80 a day to $48.25 a day beginning July 1, 2013. The move is expected to save counties more than $500,000 a year.

Fontalbert calculated that the lower daily jail rate will save Kanawha County about $80,000 a year, a drop in the bucket compared with an annual bill of more than $4 million. But, he said, "We'll take what we can get."

County officials are looking at other ways of reducing the overall jail bill. Last year, they introduced a bill to the Legislature allowing counties to pay for only half a day for prisoners who don't spend an entire day in jail. That bill failed, but Fontalbert said county officials will propose the legislation again.

County officials are also talking with officials from Charleston and South Charleston about prosecuting more misdemeanor defendants through municipal court, where jail sentences are limited to 30 days and judges may have more leeway to impose sentences other than jail time.

Fontalbert said the Charleston Police Department makes more arrests than any other police agency in the county, and therefore takes more people to jail. Although they're arrested by city police, county officials pay the jail bill.

Plants said in most states, misdemeanors committed inside city limits and investigated by city police are prosecuted in municipal court.

Assistant Kanawha County prosecutor Dan Holstine said municipal judges are more likely to be familiar with defendants arrested inside the city and have a better idea who should be jailed and who shouldn't.

"The city investigates crimes in the city, and the county investigates crimes outside the city," Holstine said. "It's the same idea." He said municipal judges might also be better equipped to move defendents more quickly through the city court system, requiring less jail time.

Fontalbert said it could save the county money if more of those offenders arrested by city police are handled through the municipal court system.

Charleston City Attorney Paul Ellis said city officials will review the city's criminal cases and figure out if it's possible to prosecute more offenders in city court rather than the county court system.

"We're interested in what's in the best interests of the public," he said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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