Just slightly more than a decade ago, Belmont County officials became fed up with overcrowding at the county jail. Built in 1996, it had 84 beds, which at the time seemed sufficient.
But in 2008, the jail was expanded to 144 beds. Within five years, even that was not enough.
Belmont County now has contracts with four other counties to house inmates for whom there is not space at the jail west of St. Clairsville. The other counties are Jefferson, Monroe, Noble and Van Wert.
Give the Belmont County sheriff’s department and county commissioners credit for doing all in their power to deal with the problem. They have no choice but to send some inmates elsewhere, at charges between $45 and $65 a day, per prisoner.
Blame the drug abuse crisis and related crimes for the overcrowding. With no end to widespread substance abuse on the horizon, don’t expect the problem to go away soon.
Draining money out of Belmont County coffers in payments to other counties for housing prisoners is not appealing to local officials. Neither is having to dispatch deputies on long trips to transport inmates to and from out-of-county lockups. But the alternative — constructing or leasing new jail space — is not particularly attractive, either.
So, what are Belmont County officials to do?
Perhaps state legislators should tackle the situation. There are standards for incarceration facilities at both the state and federal levels. And there are court rulings regarding conditions in jails and prisons.
But is there any flexibility? Could state regulations be relaxed — without endangering security or risking claims of unfair treatment of inmates? Or, as we have suggested previously, should the state consider building a few new regional jails, similar to those already in operation in West Virginia?
Finally, should the state set up a special fund to help reimburse counties in areas hit especially hard by drug-related crime for the cost of housing prisoners elsewhere?
None of this may be feasible. But counties like Belmont will get no help unless someone decides to take a hard, results-oriented look at what can be done. Just such a study ought to be launched in Columbus.