Take action on overcrowding

Belmont County leaders are in a familiar — but difficult –position.

Once again, it has become apparent that the county’s jail facility is not large enough to accomodate all the people who engage in criminal actvity here. The sheriff and the county commissioners all know the problem exists and that it is not going to go away, but they have not come up with a real solution.

According to discussion at the commissioners’ meeting last week, 199 inmates were lodged in the 144-bed jail, located on Hammond Road west of St. Clairsville. At least another five inmates are being lodged at the Jefferson County Jail in Steubenville every day at a cost of $55 each per day.

That means that the county had at least 60 more people in police custody than it had the capacity to house. Overcrowding at that level is unacceptable, and commissioners said the problem must be addressed.

With the constant need to house inmates in Jefferson County, Commissioner Mark Thomas said “public safety costs … are going through the roof.” Officials are now evaluating how that cost compares to the price tag to construct a new misdemeanor-level facility to hold some offenders.

The problem doesn’t just stem from an increase in the total number of offenders, however. It also is a result of a changing demographic among the offenders.

According to commissioners, the number of females being arrested is rising sharply. When wings of the jail are designated for women, no men can be housed in them — ultimately reducing the number of available beds for male inmates.

Jailed individuals, both male and female, with special needs such as mental health care further complicate the situation.

“The commissioners are going to have to deal with it at some point on a long-term basis, and that’s going to be a huge cost to the taxpayers, but there’s no way around it,” Thomas said.

As things stand, the commissioners anticipate allocating additional money to the sheriff to pay for inmates’ food, health care and transportation and for housing inmates in Jefferson County. It’s a situation that won’t be managable forever.

Commissioners should move quickly to determine whether constuction of a new facility to house low-level offencers ­– or perhaps one designated specifically for women — would lead to long-term savings.