Special Report: Jails on the Brink: Part II

Special Report: Jails on the Brink: Part II
Special Report: Jails on the Brink: Part II(wvva)
Published: Jun. 29, 2022 at 9:26 AM EDT
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BECKLEY, W.Va. (WVVA) - In Part I of our Special Report, ‘Jails on the Brink,’ we brought you the story of overcrowded jails and problems that are spilling over to the outside.

But how do you protect society from some while providing a path to freedom for others?

Overcrowded jails and their expensive tabs are not a problem unique to West Virginia. In the last couple of years, several cities and states, including New York, have tried to reduce their jail population by eliminating the bond system for non-violent offenders. The idea is that by limiting jail exposure, those defendants are able to continue earning a pay check, keep their homes, and support their families while preparing for their case.

But Gary Vaughan, a bondsman in Beckley, argues the bond system is critical to getting defendants back to court.

“We don’t have the manpower, law enforcement doesn’t, to go out there and find these people. So they just stack up and stack up until they get caught for something else. Then they get no bond because they’re high risk.”

In fact, according to the West Virginia Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s 2021 annual report, the number one offense driving incarcerations in W.Va. were Capias warrants -- people who weren’t showing up in court, which ties into another leading offense.

“They need that next breath of fresh air in the drug that they’re waiting for not to be sick. Showing up to court seems really minor to getting drugs and getting another fix,” said Robert Dunlap, a Beckley defense attorney.

According to Raleigh County’s jail liaison, Steve Davis, Raleigh County has been successful in reducing its annual jail bill from three to two million dollars in recent years. Through weekly jail meetings with key players in the justice system, they work to identify low-risk, non-violent offenders who may be eligible for alternative programs.

Admissions and releases
Admissions and releases(wvva)

Stacey Fragile is Raleigh County’s Chief Public Defender whose office participates in the meetings. “The research has shown that the longer someone stays in jail, the more likely they are to lose their job, their home, and those kinds of things.”

She adds “at least here in Raleigh County, we have a good group of magistrates who do review the cases and know what they’re doing before they go into an arraignment. And we don’t see the huge bonds that no one can pay that don’t match what the person is charged with.”

While Raleigh county is able to pay its bill each month, some counties in the state are falling behind, and after a certain amount of time, they are cut off from coal severance tax revenue to make up the loss.

Davis would like to see the state take a bigger role in helping out counties by paying for time served. “That would probably cut the bills in half.”

Raleigh County also employs another unique strategy to keep its jail bill in check through the Raleigh County Community Corrections program. The program offers treatment, therapy, community service, and drug testing. But more recently, the program became the first in the state to use ankle bracelets outside of home confinement.

Instead of using the bracelets to keep defendants in their homes, they are used to alter problematic behavior as they navigate the court system.

Jimmy Miller, Exec. Dir. of the Raleigh County Community Corrections, said the program is only for low-risk, non-violent offenders. The bracelets make sure the defendants show up for the programs and are home by a certain hour. They can also set up restricted zones around a victim’s home or place of work, for example.

“It breaks the routine of the same old thing every day. It gets them up here (in treatment and therapy) and away from the friends and influences they seek out.”

The cost to participate? Just $3 a day compared to the nearly $50 a day it costs taxpayers to keep them in jail.

But more than keeping them out of trouble, Miller said it keeps these folks in treatment. And it was treatment that finally helped Brian Akers, a former drug dealer from Raleigh County, break free from the system.

“When COVID hit, the jails were still taking people,” explained Akers. “But you couldn’t transfer anybody. For a long time, they just filled up and filled up and at one time they were at three times the amount of inmates they were supposed to be at.”

Akers said a judge gave him the opportunity to go to a treatment center in Summersville, and through therapy, he said he was able to heal through learning about some of the underlying issues fueling his addiction.

“We were doing drugs together the day he (my brother) died. People think that straightens you out, but it sent me further down the hole. And in 2014, 2015, there is some foul stuff in my story.”

It was a story he ultimately got to re-write through.

“They say secrets keep you sick. And that’s what I learned, to get out and talk to people.”

At least in some cases, he said the walls we build around people should maybe be the ones we fight a little bit harder to break down.

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