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Jail woes continue

Overcrowding at the county jail was a topic of discussion — again — by Belmont County commissioners last week.

Commissioners noted that the jail has a capacity of 144 people — while the average daily number of those in county custody is about 190. Those excess inmates have forced Belmont County taxpayers to pay other counties to house prisoners in their jails.

Last year, that practice cost the county about $460,000. The tab may be $100,000 higher this year, since the daily rate to house prisoners in the Jefferson County Jail has gone up.

In addition, Belmont County has contracts with several other counties, including nearby Monroe and Washington and a few others on the western side of the state. On top of the cost of housing a prisoner in one of these facilities, Belmont County must pay for their transportation and medical bills.

Commissioners have discussed various ways of meeting the challenge. One is constructing a new incarceration facility. Commissioners are reluctant to take that complicated and expensive step, as they should be.

Commissioners and law enforcement have discussed either expanding the existing facility or constructing a new one, perhaps one that would house only female inmates or one that would accommodate only low-level, misdemeanor offenders. Either proposition would be costly and would take time to complete.

Belmont County is not alone in the dilemma. Harrison County, for one, has a small jail and also has been forced to negotiate contracts with other counties to house excess prisoners.

The drug abuse epidemic has created similar situations in many other counties.

Eventually — we hope and pray — the need for additional jail beds because of drug arrests will ease up. Should counties be stuck with unneeded jail cells then?

Of course not.

State officials should be considering some regional approach to help the affected counties.

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