West Virginia’s regional jail population has been growing for years at a cost to both inmate safety and county budgets. Between 2010 and 2019, the average jail population increased by 30 percent. The average daily population statewide has exceeded total jail capacity for eight of the last nine years, putting those incarcerated at extreme risk of harm. Threats to inmate safety include health consequences, such as contracting COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, increased chance of violence, and more.
Even as counties struggle to pay for needed investments in public services due to the weight of rising jail costs on their budgets, there are few discussions about reducing the jail population. The WVCBP is currently in the process of creating a report that analyzes the impact of regional jail incarceration on county budgets. This post explores the initial trends for counties that comprise the jurisdiction of Western Regional Jail (WRJ): Cabell, Lincoln, Mason, Putnam, and Wayne.
For eight of the last ten years, Western Regional Jail’s average daily population has been larger than its capacity of 576 occupants. Some of this overcrowding is due to a backlog in the state’s prisons forcing the regional jails to hold people who await transfer. But in general, about half of people in the state’s jails are being held in pretrial detention, and many of these pretrial detainees are being charged with nonviolent offenses.
The Local Government Services Division of the West Virginia Auditor’s Office provides county and municipal budget data going back to 2013. The budgets on the website are revised projections and do not necessarily reflect the end of year totals. Nevertheless, they are the best public resource available for examining the budget outlook for West Virginia’s counties, many of which have faced decreasing tax revenue in recent years. Only two of the five counties that fall under the jurisdiction of Western Regional Jail, Cabell and Putnam, projected higher revenues in FY 2020 than in FY 2014. Of the three counties that have experienced shrinking budgets since 2014, Lincoln’s 2020 projected revenue decline was the largest at 42.5 percent.
The significant decrease in Lincoln’s operating budget can be explained by the reduction in its yearly coal fund revenue. In 2014, Lincoln County received $2,530,638 in coal fund revenue, accounting for 36 percent of its budget. For FY 2020, it only projected coal fund revenue to be $253,708, or six percent of its total budget. This dramatic reduction in coal revenue is the result of a declining coal industry paired with a reduced coal severance tax. Lincoln County is the only county in the WRJ jurisdiction that relied heavily on coal fund revenue in 2014.
While Lincoln County has seen the largest drop in projected revenue since 2014, it is also the county that has experienced the largest increase in regional jail charges as a share of total budget. In 2014, the Regional Jail Authority’s bills amounted to nine percent of the county’s operating budget. By 2019, that number jumped to 16 percent, even though the total bill was just about $40,000 higher than it was in 2014. Again, this is because Lincoln County faces a shrinking budget partially due to declining coal fund revenues and hasn’t been able to reduce its jail expenses.
There is increasing awareness that many counties in the state are unable to fully pay their bills to the Regional Jail Authority. Using information received from a public records request, we are able to analyze the last seven years of all West Virginia county billing and payment data to further shed light on this problem. The data revealed that Lincoln County has been unable to stay current on its regional jail bill since 2016.
Meanwhile the data also showed that all other counties in the Western Regional Jail jurisdiction were able to meet their payment obligations, aside from a two-year exception in Cabell County.
The purpose of this analysis was not to unfairly target Lincoln County for its difficulties paying regional jail bills. In fact, it’s the opposite. The data that WVCBP received shows that other counties across the state are facing similar concerns.
Despite many counties’ inability to pay their regional jail bills, tax cuts, including to the coal severance tax, are continually discussed in the Legislature, with the hope that increased revenue will offset the revenue lost by the lower tax rate. While many legislators argue that these severance taxes put coal operators at a competitive disadvantage with other industries and with different states and countries, this tax revenue is a large source of revenue in coal-producing counties. As we saw in the case of Lincoln County, declining coal fund revenue has the potential to significantly reduce the size of a county’s operating budget.
Counties could consider decarceration as a means of reducing the strain on their budgets. Every dollar spent on incarceration is money that can’t be invested elsewhere. There are other, non-carceral options that local governments could pursue that would lead to stronger, healthier, and safer communities, and that are less expensive than the cost of jails. This could include larger investments in public education, diversion and drug treatment programs, job training, or housing services.
March, April, and May jail data showed significant decreases in incarceration across the state, but signs indicate that we’re trending toward pre-pandemic levels once again. Unless policymakers, judges, county commissioners, and others whose decision-making affects criminal justice policy come together to discuss ways to reduce incarceration, jail bills will continue to weigh heavily on county budgets. This is important now more than ever, as state and local budgets face shortfalls until at least 2022 due to the COVID-19 recession.
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