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County Commissioners seek ways to save money on jail bill

December 23, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. ? Berkeley County's spiraling jail bill - expected to top $3 million this fiscal year - could be wrongly inflated by as much as 10 percent by double billing of inmates, a 23rd Judicial Circuit judge told Berkeley County Commissioners last week.

Judge Christopher C. Wilkes cautioned the potential savings estimate was "a guess" in a meeting with the commissioners and an assembly of county judicial system officers on Thursday. But Wilkes said he had reason to believe inmates put in Eastern Regional Jail on charges filed by more than one law enforcement agency were generating more than one daily incarceration fee assessed.

Wilkes said it would only take one person to review the billing to determine if inmates possibly were assigned more than one number because of multiple law enforcement agencies' filings, which could be generating additional $48.50 daily jail fees for one inmate.

"It hits the county commission's pocketbook pretty hard," said Commission President Steven C. Teufel, who admitted he and fellow Commissioners Ronald K. Collins and William L. Stubblefield had organized the meeting with judicial system officers to "lobby" them for more home confinement sentencnig.

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The informal discussion came a few hours after County Commissioners informally decided to send letters to county elected officers to "set aside" 20 percent of their spending to ensure the county can balance its books by June 30, 2008, the end of the fiscal year.

"I don't see how we're going to continue to operate without raising taxes," said Norwood Bentley III, the commission's legal counsel.

Wilkes, along with fellow circuit judge David H. Sanders and Magistrates Jim Humphrey, Sandra L. Miller and JoAnn Overington indicated they respond favorably to motions for alternative sentencing, including community service, when a defendant is eligble.

But Wilkes said that window of opportunity is limited by what he described as a unique profile for criminals, some of whom are drawn to Berkeley County from neighboring states where bars close earlier, making the county "a destination of last resort."

"...The problem is they keep coming back," said Wilkes.

After significant discussion on alternative sentencing, Wilkes and others concluded that the county may want to explore reducing jail expenses generated while inmates are awaiting trial early on the process.

County officials very shortly after the individual is arrested could initiate an "immediate assessment" of an arrested individual's eligibility for home confinement by having a more thorough background, criminal history examination completed, officials said.

"I think the cost savings would be generated in magistrate court," Wilkes said.

Through Nov. 30, 2007, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department reported saving 7,973 days of jail time this year with 45 home confinement program participants, according to figures compiled by Deputy Lt. D.S. Richmond. Since 2002, the program has saved about $1.9 million, according to Richmond's report.

With GPS tracking and alcohol sensor-equipped monitoring devices, Sanders said the court system would not have to alone rely on a defendant's integrity.

The evaluation process wouldn't require the more costly establishment of a day reporting center-based program, but law enforcement officials likely would need more equipment for additional home confinement participants.

More than half of the jail cost is accrued before a defendant's trial, Prosecuting Attorney Pamela J. Games-Neely said.

Before arraigning individuals after they've been arrested, Humphrey said he already checks magistrate court records to see if a defendant has a criminal history and sets bonds accordingly.

Overington said she sets cash bonds for alleged drug dealers, particularly on individuals who appear to reside another state.

"I'm not going to give them the opportunity to just let them walk out the door," Overington said.

Miller said she rules favorably on home confinement motions when applicable.

"Anyone that makes a motion for home confinement and community service - I've never denied anyone," Miller said. "If they qualify ... I put in as many as I can," Miller said.

Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield said he would like more hours of community service be tacked onto jail sentences to help with litter clean-up programs, such as Adopt-A-Highway.

Though Richmond's report shows a substantial drop in community service hours completed from 2006 through November 30, 2007, Wilkes noted that he had began ordering service hours be completed through the 23rd Judicial Circuit's probation office when the court consolidated operations at the new judicial center.

"We were told there no people available (to monitor the participants)," Wilkes said.

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