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Charleston's jail costs rise sharply

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The city of Charleston's costs to house prisoners in the South Central Regional Jail have risen sharply over the past three months, largely because of a change in how Kanawha County Magistrate Court handles misdemeanors.

First quarter jail billings for fiscal year 2014, which began in July, total more than $41,000. This number surpasses the $64,623 the city spent in all of fiscal 2013, according to city finance records and bills from the state Regional Jail Authority.

The authority billed the city $12,400 in July, $16,067 in August and $13,268 in September in the most recent fiscal year. Last year, the city was billed $5,465 in July, $2,781 in August and $2,196 in September.

"It appears to me that we may have reached a new plateau on our jail costs, at least as evidenced by the last three months of activity," said city Finance Director Joe Estep. "I don't think I've ever seen numbers like the July and August numbers that I saw this time."

The city's prisoner costs are based on the number of "inmate days" -- nights that prisoners spend in South Central -- charged to the city. That rate was lowered from $48.80 to $48.25 per day in July, the same time the city's costs began to rise.

City officials say several factors could be responsible for the city's increased prisoner costs.

Municipal Court is handling more misdemeanor cases, which would send more people to the regional jail, according to Terri Allen, with the Municipal Court Clerk's Office. The court handled 518 cases this July, compared with 288 cases for the same month last year.

Starting in March, most misdemeanor charges filed by Charleston police were handled in Municipal Court, rather than Kanawha County Magistrate Court. (Some city cases, including DUIs and those involving juveniles or domestic charges, still go to the county.)

Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants' office asked for the change in an effort to curb the county's regional jail costs -- which are around $5 million a year, according to Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper.

"It just seems disproportionate that counties should have to pay the jail bill for cities, State Police, everybody," Carper said, adding that the state of West Virginia should bear more of the cost to house people in jails.

Charleston City Manager David Molgaard said city officials expected the caseload increase.

"Everybody recognized that by putting these cases through the Municipal Court, instead of taking them to the county, [we] would see an uptick," Molgaard said.

But many of the misdemeanor cases in Municipal Court don't involve jail time, said City Attorney Paul Ellis.

According to Molgaard, the city's increased costs are "not so much a result of sentencing, but holding until bond can be set."

The city has tried to hold prisoners at the regional jail for shorter times, Molgaard said. The city has included a special arraignment booth in its holding area and conducted arraignments via video.

Ellis said the city needs "a good year" to fully understand the effects of switching cases from Magistrate Court to Municipal Court.

The city's costs also could be a result of a spike in arrests.

Despite those first quarter numbers, Molgaard said the city might not surpass the $137,000 that has been budgeted for prisoner costs this year. Molgaard said the city will continue to monitor those numbers to determine if it is a new trend or "an anomaly."

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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