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Prison expenses for Kanawha down in 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County officials say taxpayers paid about $140,000 less over the past six months to house prisoners at South Central Regional Jail.

When compared against the average bill for 2012, Kanawha County saved $140,991.23 over the past six months. Officials attribute the savings to a push for increased speed and efficiency in dealing with inmates.

Each county in West Virginia pays to house inmates at the nearest regional jail. The jails then bill counties each month for the cost to house inmates.

Last year, South Central Regional Jail's average monthly bill was $385,363. But since the county started pushing to improve efficiency in its court system, every month's jail bill since February has been lower than last year's average.

In fact, the jail bill for July 2013, an invoice of $336,640, was the lowest since February 2011, when the bill was $330,376.

"That's some real money," Commission President Kent Carper said.

In February, the county hired Tony Searls to help monitor costs associated with the jail and increase communication within the judicial system.

When a person is arrested in Kanawha County, the county pays for him or her to be housed in the jail until the person is released, placed in an alternative sentencing program or sent to the state Division of Corrections.

Those convicted of crimes but sentenced to one year or less in jail can also be incarcerated in the Regional Jail Authority system. During the inmate's stay, the county pays a per-diem rate to house the inmate, currently set at $48.25 per inmate, per day.

Thus, the longer an inmate is in the jail, whether pre- or post-trial, the more the county pays. Searls' job is to reduce the county's bill by helping get inmates processed through the court system faster.

At least once each month, Searls compiles a list of current incarcerations at South Central for which Kanawha County is responsible. While the incarcerations are obtained from the jail itself, Searls adds information from the court system, including judges, attorneys and the status of the case. The list is then sent to various players in the county's judicial system.

The information provided by the list can be used to track individuals as they move through the system and make sure the list is accurate.

"What it really does is make sure nobody falls through the cracks," said Dan Holstein, chief of staff for the Kanawha County Prosecutor's Office.

Holstein said having an updated list of inmates helps officials in the judicial system move people through the system much more efficiently. For instance, he said, if someone on probation is arrested and taken to jail, the probation office knows that the person has been arrested and can schedule a probation hearing much faster than without the list.

In addition, the list can help prosecutors and defense attorneys decide to change bond amounts or hearing dates. Holstein gave a hypothetical example of a shoplifter in jail because he or she can't pay a small bond.

Based on the severity of the case, the prosecution, defense and judge can make a decision to lower the bond to let the person out of jail until trial. Such action saves the county money, as paying the per diem rate would top the bond in three days.

"Do we really want these people to be in jail or not?" Holstein said.

The availability of the list also ensures that paperwork is completed upon sentencing and that sentencing orders have been completed for inmates.

A small part of the savings in July can be attributed to the 55-cent reduction in the per diem rate for prisoners that took effect July 1. Searls said the reduction saved the county about $3,500.

Not every month this year has been significantly lower. The jail bill in June, for example, was $381,030 - a savings of $4,333.

For the first seven months of 2013, the average monthly jail bill was $367,027, around $10,000 less than the same time period last year and about $18,000 less than the average for the entirety of 2012.

Holstein said the new system has greatly increased communication throughout the county's judicial system.

"Everybody's feedback has been great," Holstein said. "What's not to like about it?"

Contact writer Matt Murphy at Matt.Murphy@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.


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