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Ohio County constantly evaluates, cuts jail costs

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo Ohio County Prosecutor Scott Smith
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo
Ohio County Prosecutor Scott Smith

WHEELING, W.Va. — Ohio County’s yearly cost to house inmates at the Northern Regional Jail – as much as $1 million a decade ago – dropped to under $600,000 for the last fiscal year, and Prosecutor Scott Smith attributes the reduction to keeping a watchful eye on who is incarcerated each day, and evaluating which inmates need to remain in jail.

Smith said the county also takes advantage of the alternative sentencing options available, and seeks to move pre-trial cases more quickly through the legal system.

“We’ve always been trying to save money on jail costs, and it was a couple of years ago we started to try new things,” Smith said. “When you’re looking at jail costs, you’re looking at some pretty big numbers.”

It costs $48.50 per day to house an inmate at the Northern Regional Jail, and if that inmate remains there a full year the price for incarceration comes to $17,702.50, he said.

If the county averages 30 people in jail each day, the annual cost is $531,075. And if Ohio County houses just five more inmates there on a daily basis – a total of 35 – the cost rises $88,510 for the year.

“You can see how just a relatively small number adds up to a lot of money,” Smith said.

Ohio County averages between 30 and 35 inmates at the jail on a daily basis.

All pre-trial incarceration costs are charged to the county, including those for criminals apprehended by the Wheeling Police Department and the West Virginia State Police.

If the arrested person is later convicted of a felony, the state of West Virginia pays for their future jail costs.

If the person is convicted of a misdemeanor, the bill for daily incarceration comes back to the county.

Smith said he starts each day by examining a list of who has been arrested overnight, as well as a second list of Ohio County prisoners being housed at Northern Regional Jail on that day.

After this, he and his staff determine which have past criminal records, or have the potential to be a violent threat to society. Bond and bond conditions are set for some, while others are permitted pre-trial release or home confinement.

“We determine whether they have a place to stay when they are released, or if they can stay with a friend or relative,” Smith said.

“That’s important. If you have someone on home confinement, there has to be a telephone there.”

He said the county also tries to move the cases of those incarcerated as quickly as possible through the legal system to save jail costs.

“When someone is arrested after the grand jury in January, we can’t present the case (for indictment) until May, and that’s a long period,” Smith said.

“We try to get a resolution of the case during that period.”

Often the arrested person enters a plea, and the prosecutor’s office files an information document – similar to the indictment – with the circuit court, Smith said.

Alternative sanctions such as drug court or mental health court also are an alternative to incarceration.

In these cases, the prisoner is released under the conditions they must comply with the terms of the alternative court, and failure to do so will land them back in prison.

Those in drug courts typically are not violent offenders, but often have faced charges for such offenses as writing bad checks, embezzling or theft, he said.

The money gained through these offenses mostly is put toward their drug addiction, Smith said.

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