HD9 - Funding Incentives for Reducing Jail Populations
Item 15G of the 1995 Appropriation Act directs the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) to conduct a study of incentives that could be used to aid in reducing the number of prisoners awaiting trial and the number of misdemeanants held in local and regional jails. The study was to specifically include an assessment of alternative reimbursement strategies for prisoners held for 24 hours or less.
Jails and alternatives to incarceration have been the focus of several recent reports. These studies have shown that alternatives to incarceration can be used to reduce jail populations and costs. In this study, rather than focusing on alternative programs and their usefulness in redirecting individuals from local jails, JLARC staff focused on financial incentives for reducing jail populations.
The study identifies a number of potential incentives that may be useful to localities in reducing jail populations, and discusses how funds can be directed to selected alternative programs. Funding from State and federal sources were both accounted for in this assessment.
Local and Regional Jails in Virginia
Local and regional jails in Virginia are an important part of the State's criminal justice system. These facilities, which house both local and State-responsible inmates, receive significant support from the State in the form of funding for jail security and other staff positions, per diem payments for inmates, and funding for construction and renovation projects. On August 15, 1995, these facilities held 14,285 inmates; they had an operational capacity of 10,163. About 12 percent of the individuals in local jails are sentenced misdemeanants and 40 percent are unsentenced inmates awaiting trial.
The growth in both State and local responsibility inmates has added to steady increases in the levels of overcrowding in jail facilities. Although the State and local governments have attempted to increase the capacities of local jails through construction and renovation projects, these attempts have not been able to accommodate increasing inmate populations. Consequently, jail overcrowding has been a problem for sheriffs and jail administrators, and incentives for local officials to redirect inmates into alternative programs have been inadequate.
Current Compensation Board Funding
The Compensation Board currently provides funding for the operation of local and regional jails through payments to localities for jail staff, and per diem reimbursement for inmates held in local jails on State warrants. In FY 1996, about $109 million has been appropriated for jail staff and operational funding. Jail per diem reimbursements, which now include a complicated block grant, are estimated to be $47.3 million in FY 1996. Of the total per diem payment in FY 1996, $17.8 million is estimated to be for the basic reimbursement for prisoner days, $15.6 million is for State-responsible felons, and $13.9 million is for the block grants.
Incentive Structure of Current Funding
The current methods for funding local and regional jails include several provisions intended to be incentives to reduce jail populations. It appears, however, that none of these funding provisions provide any direct incentive to reduce jail populations. While the new block grant was intended to be an incentive, its complex formula obscures the nature of any such incentive. Few of the sheriffs and jail administrators interviewed by JLARC staff understood fully how the block grant is calculated, and many were not aware of any incentives in Compensation Board funding. Due to operational problems, the Department of Criminal Justice Services has suggested that the block grant be discontinued in favor of a more direct approach.
Recommendation (1). The General Assembly may wish to discontinue the block grant funding method for sentenced misdemeanants and unsentenced persons awaiting trial.
The current per diems for local jails are based on the number of prisoner days, creating a potential financial disincentive for reducing jail populations. However, the basic $8 per diem has the advantage of being easy to administer, and if set at the average of costs, can help to hold down jail costs. For this reason, it may be appropriate to retain the basic per diem payment for local and regional jails. The $6 supplemental per diem for State felons appears unrelated to any greater costs for housing those inmates, however, so it unnecessarily increases State costs for jail reimbursements.
Recommendation (2). The General Assembly may wish to retain the basic per diem used to reimburse local and regional jails for prisoners held on State warrants.
Recommendation (3). The General Assembly may wish to discontinue the $6 supplemental per diem used to reimburse local and regional jails for State-responsible felons.
Funding incentives of almost any design are unlikely to be successful in reducing jail populations if sheriffs are concerned about the reductions in staffing which could result from reductions in jail populations. In interviews with JLARC staff, several sheriffs mentioned this concern as a potential obstacle to the use of alternative programs. To address this concern, the General Assembly could include in any incentives, limits on the reduction of jail staff which would result from the use of alternatives to incarceration.
Recommendation (4). The General Assembly may wish to consider phased reductions in jail staffing which result from the use of alternatives to incarceration.
The Appropriation Act permits the Compensation Board to fund alternative program staff positions in local and regional jails at a ratio of one position for every 16 offenders in the programs. This is intended to offset any reduction in staffing the jails would experience if inmates are shifted to alternative programs. Currently, however, no funding is available to staff the alternative positions, so the one-to-16 ratio provides no incentive to reduce jail populations.
Recommendation (5). The General Assembly may wish to fund the positions necessary for the Compensation Board to staff the one-to-16 ratio for alternative programs operated by local and regional jails.
In addition to State and local inmates, some jails house prisoners for the federal government. In return for housing federal inmates, localities receive federal reimbursements, which in FY 1995 totaled more than $12 million. On August 15,1995, Virginia jails housed more than 700 federal inmates.
Although the State does not reimburse localities for housing federal inmates, State funding for jail staff is based on operating capacity. If a significant part of the jail population consists of federal inmates, this process results in the State subsidizing the incarceration of federal inmates in local and regional jails. In addition, federal inmates can potentially add to overcrowding problems in local and regional jails.
Recommendation (6). To limit subsidies of federal inmate costs in local and regional jails, the General Assembly may wish to consider reductions in per diem payments to localities for local and regional jails housing federal prisoners as offsets for federal prisoner days reimbursed for those jails.
Proposed Jail Funding Incentives
To promote the use of alternatives to incarceration as a way to reduce jail populations, changes to State funding for local and regional jails will be necessary. The necessary changes relate to Compensation Board funding for per diems paid for prisoner days. Incentives in per diems should be direct and simple, and should focus on reductions for very short-term nonviolent misdemeanants and inmates awaiting trial.
Given the nature of the alternative programs in Virginia localities, it is important for funding incentives to focus on reductions in certain parts of the jail population. Alternatives to incarceration are designed to serve nonviolent misdemeanants and unsentenced prisoners awaiting trial. Accordingly, jails should associate the funding incentives with this target population.
Recommendation (7). In order to promote a reduction in short-term nonviolent offenders, the General Assembly may wish to revise the per diem funding formula for local and regional jails to include reductions for nonviolent prisoners held less than 24 hours, for nonviolent prisoners held less than 48 hours, and for some portion of the general population of nonviolent misdemeanants and unsentenced inmates awaiting trial.
Under current law, sheriffs have authority to place certain eligible inmates in home confinement programs operated by the sheriff or the Department of Corrections. Prior approval of a court is not required. This flexibility in managing the jail population does not extend to other alternative programs. Thus, localities may have little ability to respond directly to funding incentives by moving inmates to alternative programs.
Recommendation (8). The General Assembly may wish to expand the authority of sheriffs and regional jail boards to place nonviolent misdemeanants held in local and regional jails in a wider array of locally established alternative programs operated by the sheriff or regional jail boards. Sheriffs and jail administrators should be required to notify in writing the Commonwealth's attorney and the sentencing court of any transfer of an offender sentenced to jail but diverted to an alternative program. Prior approval of the court should not be required.
A direct positive incentive for the jail would help to ensure that localities recognize the importance of alternative programs. To this end, the localities should share in any savings associated with reduced jail populations. Some portion of the reduction in per diem payments could be returned to the localities in the form of operational funding for locally established alternative programs operated by the sheriffs and jail boards. Such funding would make clear the State's commitment to move nonviolent offenders from the jails to alternative programs.
Recommendation (9). The General Assembly may wish to include as a part of incentives to reduce jail populations positive incentives, such as financial support of locally established alternative programs operated by the sheriffs or regional jail boards, funded from reductions in per diem payments.
To the extent the General Assembly wishes to fund alternative programs from reductions in jail per diems, operational support should be provided to those programs that remove inmates from jail facilities entirely. Programs such as home confinement, electronic monitoring, day reporting centers, and public inebriate centers are most useful in reducing the jails' populations.
Recommendation (10). The General Assembly may wish to consider providing operational funding for locally established alternative programs which reduce jail populations. Among the programs that should be considered for funding are home confinement, electronic monitoring, day reporting centers, and public inebriate centers.
Illustrative Examples of Funding Incentives
In order to illustrate the impact of various funding incentives, JLARC staff developed several computer models based on the Compensation Board's data on staffing levels, inmate populations, and 1996 per diem estimates. The models were used to calculate revised per diem amounts for Virginia's local and regional jails. However, JLARC's four illustrative examples are not recommendations for funding; rather, they represent a number of possible ways in which the per diem payments can be used to promote the use of alternatives to incarceration. These examples are discussed in Chapter III of the report.