A bill Valley legislators carried in this year’s General Assembly that sought to reduce overcrowding at local and regional jails and the costs it imposes on localities died in committee on Tuesday.
Though the Virginia Department of Corrections is required to move its inmates into one of its facilities within 90 days of conviction, there is budget language that allows it to leave prisoners in other facilities, placing the burden on local and regional jails such as Middle River Regional and Rockingham County.
Dels. Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater, and Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, carried a bill that would have required the DOC to pay higher daily rates to local jails the longer the DOC does not pick up prisoners who should be at a DOC facility.
Inmates are classified as DOC-responsible if they have been sentenced to at least one year in prison on state charges.
The bill would have required the DOC to pay local and regional facilities $12 per day for every inmate who should be in DOC care. The next 60 days to 90, it would ramp up to $40 per inmate per day, and after that, the DOC would be required to fully compensate local and regional jails for the cost of inmate care every day.
Harrisonburg and Rockingham County Criminal Justice Planner Frank Sottaceti said Middle River Regional Jail had 220 inmates who should have been in DOC custody, costing local taxpayers $8,800 every day, in a November presentation to City Council.
The issue of the DOC leaving inmates in local and regional jails is not new and goes back at least 20 years, according to various elected officials and corrections officials.
In 2020, an average of 4,158 prisoners a month were at local facilities who should have been in a DOC facility, according to state documents obtained from the DOC through an October Freedom of Information Act request.
In 2019, an average of 2,784 inmates each month were in local jails who should have been in DOC facilities. The year before, the average was 3,380 each month and in 2017, it was 3,241.
Between 2011 and 2016, there was an annual average of between 4,048 and 5,067 inmates in local jails who should have been at state facilities, according to the data.
Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said the number of DOC-responsible inmates at local facilities will likely rise as court proceedings get back to normal after being paused by the pandemic.
“We might even have a bigger [backup] once prisoners start getting sentenced,” he said. “Then, out of compliance numbers are going to skyrocket.”
Runion said DOC keeping prisoners at local facilities also unfairly impacts localities that cannot anticipate when the DOC will pick up its inmates and has to foot the bill to house prisoners who should be in DOC care.
Rockingham County Administrator Stephen King agreed.
“The bottom line for us is we don’t have any predictability,” King said. “We don’t know what the state is going to do or not do, which leaves us with overcrowding.”
He said the DOC not following state code is a serious issue.
“They have not shown they’re going to do it,” he said. “If the state would do what they’re required to do by the code of Virginia, then we would be in good shape, but we can’t trust them to do that.”
Rockingham County is a joint member of Middle River Regional Jail along with Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County.
When the jail was built, it was rated to house 396 people, but on Monday, there were 786 people inside, according to Jeffery Newton, jail superintendent.
“I’ve got 200-plus people in my [facility] that belong in DOC,” Newton said.
The facility was originally constructed by Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro, and Rockingham County and Harrisonburg joined in 2015 — yet no new beds were added, according to Newton.
Last year, an effort to expand the jail failed after a campaign against the expansion took root and not enough member localities agreed to fund the effort.
Instead, a renovation was planned, but that, too, has been put on hold.
“There doesn’t seem to be an appetite in member jurisdictions to build beds, so we’ve got to get the DOC to take their inmates,” Newton said.
There are 50 inmates MRRJ is paying jails in Front Royal and Southside to house, according to Newton.
He said regional jails are not meant to be overflow facilities for the DOC.
“The state holds all the cards,” Newton said.
Last year, the pair of local delegates, Wilt and Runion, spoke about the DOC issue to the administration of outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam, according to Wilt.
“Again, we will just have to re-engage those conversations with the new administration and advocate for sustained improvements,” Wilt said in a Tuesday email.
“Sooner or later this issue is going to have to be meaningfully addressed,” Wilt wrote. “Whether it’s compensating regional jails appropriately for state responsible inmates or simply making the transfers to DOC facilities in a timely fashion. Even though Delegate Runion’s bill may not be moving forward, I’m committed, and I expect he is as well, to continue conversations with our Secretary of Public Safety, DOC staff and others.”
Runion said the bill was no silver bullet, but was meant to at least get momentum moving in the right direction.
“How do we put folks where there’s capacity and an environment that’s appropriate for these prisoners and how do we treat localities fairly?” Runion said.