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Kanawha officials perplexed by spike in jail bill

By Rusty Marks, Staff writer

Kanawha County officials are trying to figure out what’s responsible for a recent spike in the bill for housing prisoners at the South Central Regional Jail.

The county’s jail bill jumped more than $75,000 over the past three months, financial records show.

According to county records, the jail bill was about $278,000 in December, about $283,000 in January, about $279,000 in February and about $316,000 in March. In April, the jail bill jumped to about $340,000, and went up to $394,000 in May.

June’s jail bill, received recently, is almost $404,000.

Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants said most of the increase in the bill is probably because of normal seasonal fluctuations. “Usually, summer is when more crimes are committed,” he said.

A review of the county’s jail bills going back to 2006 shows the bill tends to go up during the summer, usually starting around March or April. July and August tend to have some of the highest bills, records show.

But even taking into account an uptick in crime with warmer weather, county officials are still concerned about the recent rise in the jail bill. April’s bill this year is lower than April of last year and April of 2012, but May’s bill is more than $36,000 higher than last year.

And the $404,000 jail bill for June is the highest of any year dating back to 2006. Records show the jail bill for June of last year was about $381,000; the bill for June 2012 was about $370,000 and the bill for June 2011 was about $375,000.

The jail bill for the month of June was less than $350,000 in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010. The bill for June 2009 was about $357,000, county records show.

“I think it’s due to a lot of things,” Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said of the increase. It falls to the County Commission to pay the jail bill when it comes in every month.

Carper said part of the increase may be because judges aren’t taking advantage of alternative sentencing options that keep offenders out of jail. While the county’s circuit judges often use alternative sentences like home confinement, Carper said county magistrates are less likely to.

He also said there are more drug arrests being made in the county. “We’ve got a drug crisis around here, if nobody’s been paying attention,” Carper said.

Even so, the jail bill could be a lot worse. Shortly after taking office in 2009, Plants began a concerted effort to rein in the jail bill. Plants tried to speed up indictments so defendants spent less time in jail before trial, and tried to streamline sentencing.

Once a prisoner is sentenced, the state picks up the tab for their jail stay.

After state officials raised the daily cost of a jail stay, county officials started a second round of cost-saving procedures that included transferring some misdemeanor cases to Charleston Municipal Court. After noticing several errors in the jail bill, county officials also started closely auditing each month’s bill to make sure there were no mistaken charges.

Plants says the cost-saving measures have saved the county millions of dollars since he took office, including about $570,000 over the past year.

“All of our procedures and cost savings remain in place,” he said.

Carper isn’t sure what more can be done to keep jail costs down.

“It’s almost academic,” he said. “They’re in jail and we have to pay the bill.”

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


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