Chris Schulz Published

Senate Bill Works To Stabilize Jail Funding

Sen. Eric Tarr stands on the Senate floor wearing a dark suit and holding a microphone up to speak while others around him sit
Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, speaks about SB 596 on the Senate floor Feb. 21, 2023.
Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

The West Virginia Senate took up a bill Tuesday that would change how, and how much, counties pay for inmates they send to the state’s correctional system. 

The legislature has grappled with the issue of jail funding for the past few years. Senate Bill 596 aims to modify the payment for housing and maintenance of inmates.

The amount counties and municipalities pay for every day of incarceration has been capped at $48.25 per inmate since 2018, but the State Budget Office stated earlier this year the per diem rate will increase to $54.48 in July.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Jason Barrett, R-Berkeley, said SB596 will establish a pro-rata system to help counties pay the increased cost.

“We were able to figure out each county’s allotment of jailed nights, and then we were able to create a formula based on that pro rata share that each county will receive,” he said. “The first 80 percent of the nights that happened in the county would be billed at a 20 percent discount rate. From 80 percent to 100 percent, would be billed at the 100 percent of the current rate, and then if the county goes over their allotment of nights, there will be a 20 percent penalty for those nights.”

The rates for each county will be calculated by the commissioner of Corrections and Rehabilitation using census data and reviewed every 10 years. Barrett said through the 20 percent penalty, the bill would encourage counties to not only reduce their jail bill, but also develop alternative programs to help West Virginians.

“This way, we’re able to reduce the jail bills for counties, and also incentivize them to have really good day report centers, recovery resource centers, and utilize home confinement officers,” Barrett said. “We are incentivizing counties to not only reduce their jail bill, but to help people of West Virginia. If counties refuse to participate in those things, and they don’t make an effort to reduce their jail bill, in the amount of nights that folks are in jail in their county, then there will be a monetary penalty for that.”

The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which has budgetary issues including a deferred maintenance cost of $200 million, has previously stated that the artificially low per diem payments do not cover the actual cost of incarceration.

In presenting the bill on the Senate floor, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, highlighted a provision in the bill that would put county commissioners personally on the hook for unpaid jail bills.

“It would codify the common and case law principle that public officials may be held personally liable for clearly delineated constitutional and statutory duties,” Tarr said. “This section of code clearly provides that counties bear the responsibility for paying for inmate housing and care. When a county fails to pay for inmate housing, this bill would codify that liability on both an official level and the personal level.”

The bill passed 22 to 11, with one senator absent, and now heads to the House of Delegates for consideration.