By Liz Beavers
Tribune Managing Editor
KEYSER - Months behind on their regional jail bill and at wit's end over how they're going to catch up on the costs which range from $65,000-$88,000 a month, the Mineral County Commissioners are looking for ways to cut back on the amount of people being put behind bars.
According to West Virginia state law, the county must foot the $$48.50 per day cost of housing each inmate in one of the state's regional jails - whether that person was put there by city or county law enforcement.
With only $800,000 budgeted for regional jail costs for the fiscal year, Mineral County has not paid its bill since February.
Tuesday, the officials voted to send along March's payment.
And while they say their intention is to pay what they owe, the county officials agree that "something needs to be done" to bring the jail costs down to a manageable level.
Tuesday, retired attorney David Webb, who served as interim assistant county prosecutor for several months this year, told the commissioners his service to the county allowed him to take a look at the judicial process and formulate some ideas for helping keep non-violent offenders out of jail and off the county's dime.
He assured the commissioners any plans would not involve violent offenders or compromise the safety of the county.
"No one in this room is soft on crime and no one wants Mineral County to be unsafe," he said. "But we're always looking for efficient ways to do things (to ensure) the wise allocation and management of taxpayers' money ...
"If we care about the reduction of this bill, then we're going to have to do some things differently," he said, adding that, "$800,000 is a lot of taxpayers' money."
He suggested better utilization of home confinement as one means of cutting costs. In addition, he feels jailing non-violent offenders in between court appearances is often unnecessary.
Noting that people are often put in jail because they are considered a flight risk until their next court appearance, Webb said, "If they flee, so what? They're away from here. As long as they flee and stay fled," he said, laughing.
Webb suggested holding "a convention of sorts" to brainstorm ideas for reducing the county's jail costs, with all the key players - circuit court judges, magistrates, defense attorneys, the prosecutor's office, and county commissioners - present and participating.
Commission president Janice LaRue noted that some counties in the state have hired a consultant to look at the judicial system to determine where they could save costs.
"Their job is dedicated to reducing the jail bill ... and they've saved those counties thousands of dollars," she said.
Page 2 of 2 - "I think that's something we really need to look at."
Commissioner Jerry Whisner agreed that the county could "possibly hire somebody and look into this on a trial basis."
He also suggested the meeting be held at soon as possible to discuss further ideas.
Prosecuting attorney Jay Courrier, who also sat in on Tuesday's discussion with Webb, noted that there are state grants available for positions like LaRue suggested.
LaRue also noted that county commissioners across the state have tried to push legislation through that takes the burden of payment off the counties, "but we haven't been able to get it through."
Courrier agreed to check with the judges to see when they would be able to meet to discuss the issue. It is expected the meeting will be held later this month or in January.
"We can't go on like this," Whisner said.