Because county governments must ultimately pay the costs associated with keeping people behind bars in their local jails, the explosion of county jail incarceration is driving enormous and growing pressure on county budgets. County spending on jails is rising, and the amount billed to counties by the Regional Jail Authority is rising even more quickly, leading to a significant and growing gap between the true costs of jail incarceration and counties’ ability to pay. This is propelling a burgeoning jail debt crisis with the potential to cripple county budgets, especially now as the pandemic recession pushes many county budgets into deficit due to falling tax revenues.
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Between 2000 and 2019, West Virginia’s jail population increased by a staggering 81 percent, from approximately 2,853 inmates to 5,172, even as the state’s population shrunk in the same period. This follows the longer trend of mass incarceration in West Virginia and the United States as a whole. West Virginia state and local governments spent $195 per capita on corrections in 2017, up 387.5 percent from $40 per capita in 1977, according to data from the Urban Institute State and Local Finance Initiative. As counties look for ways to pay for needed investments in public services that could aid residents and businesses, there are few discussions about reducing the jail population despite the rising costs of incarceration.
As revenues from extractive industries like the severance tax continue to decline for counties and as state and local governments face major potential budget shortages as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, county commissioners and policymakers could seek lower cost alternatives to jail incarceration that can improve public safety equitably. The money saved from jail incarceration could then be invested back into counties, i.e., via increased funding to services like parks, libraries, and public health, and could lead to improved outcomes.