Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Letters to the Editor

December 2, 2012

City jail: Unity key in finding workable solution

— Keeping crime under control is a constant process. Incidents such as burglaries, illegal drug activity, thefts and other infractions must be investigated. When these investigations result in arrests, suspects must be confined until they have posted bond or been remanded to jail.

Local law enforcement agencies usually have a cell or room for detaining people under arrest, but only for short periods of time while they are being processed. However, if this period extends to a day or more, an actual jail setting is needed.

One alternative is the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver, but this option requires officers to drive a suspect up to Raleigh County, wait until the prisoner is processed, and then return to Mercer County. This trip can easily take two to three hours off an officer’s shift — time that could be spent patrolling or responding to 911 emergencies. Mercer County does not have a lot of deputies, state troopers and other officers, so keeping as many on patrol instead of ferrying prisoners is important.

A second alternative is to house the prisoners at the Bluefield City Jail. The previous city manager, Andy Merriman, removed all funding for the jail from the city’s fiscal 2012-2013 budget. The city board has intentions to operate it at least until the end of the year, but whether the city can continue paying for the jail next year is another matter.

Having a small jail in Mercer County drastically reduces the time officers have to spend transporting prisoners to the regional jail, plus it reduces fuel cost and the usual wear and tear on vehicles. Outside law enforcement agencies pay a daily fee to keep prisoners who are usually waiting for a court appearance or a hearing before a magistrate. Prisoners who are soon released on bond can return home without having to wait in Raleigh County for a ride home.

Unfortunately, running a jail of any size is expensive. Bluefield’s jail has three cells with a total capacity of 16 people, but it is still an expensive operation. It has been estimated that the annual cost is more than $170,000 a year. Even with fees, the city ends up paying 90 percent of the jail budget.

For years, various people and organizations have advocated more cooperation between the county government and the municipalities. Having a small, local jail that houses prisoners temporarily benefits the county, Bluefield, Princeton and many of the county’s smaller towns. This makes the city jail a good opportunity for cooperation between local governments.

There have been some discussions between the Mercer County Commission and the city of Bluefield, but the time for discussions has passed. Now is the time for planning with a concrete solution as its goal. Putting the heads of the experienced personnel found in county and city governments together and pooling their thoughts should generate workable ideas for financing the city jail or finding viable alternatives. Establishing a deadline to find a solution — and implement it — would add the necessary urgency.

For example, Sheriff Don Meadows suggested getting the county and the cities together to create a van service carrying prisoners to and from the regional jail.

The governments would have to share the cost of acquiring, maintaining and fueling a van. The service, which would run twice a day, would also require officers who are bonded, trained and have arrest powers. Transporting prisoners is not a job for inexperienced civilians, Meadows pointed out. It is an expensive proposition, but it might be less costly to the public than keeping officers from their duties.

A solution to detaining suspects in Mercer County must be found. If local governments join forces and bring all the experience available to them to bear, an answer to this problem could be found. The safety of Mercer County’s residents depends on finding this solution now.

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