City leaders call for lobbying effort to stop Harrisonburg from having to pay for state inmates

Harrisonburg is one of five localities that helps fund the Middle River Regional Jail in Staunton. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

While the rate of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County residents incarcerated at the local jail and Middle River Regional Jail has remained fairly flat since 2014, the city is having to cover the cost of more state inmates who have no connection to this community but are being housed at the regional jail. 

The city and county’s criminal justice planner, Frank Sottaceti, told the Harrisonburg City Council Tuesday that residents should lobby state leaders to stop exploiting a “loophole” that forces localities like Harrisonburg to pay for state Department of Corrections inmates placed at Middle River Regional Jail. 

Sottaceti presented local crime and incarceration data, including how the number of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County residents held in the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Jail or in Middle River Regional Jail in Staunton increased 0.43% since 2014. 

Middle River, which takes inmates from five localities (Rockingham and Augusta counties and the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro), has 48 inmates from the county and city now out of the 742 people housed there, he said. Meanwhile, 220 inmates are state inmates awaiting transfer to the Department of Corrections because of a “loophole in budget language that leaves it up to the director of DOC to make those transfers.”

He said because Harrisonburg is one of the five localities that help fund Middle River, the city is essentially losing money each day that DOC inmates are kept there. 

Sottacetti said that at $55 a day for each of the 220 current state inmates at Middle River, it works out to be about $8,800 a day.

“And we’re talking about $14 million for a renovation, it doesn’t take long to reach $14 million when you have 220 people that you’re taking a $40-a-day debit on and getting $15 from the commonwealth,” Sottaceti said.

When council member George Hirschmann asked what could be done to facilitate the transfer of more state inmates from Middle River, Sottaceti said people should “advocate to our elected officials at the commonwealth level to compel them to follow the law, and not the loophole in the budget language.”

Council member Laura Dent said the Community Criminal Justice Board is working on a resolution to “make sure that we close that loophole and enforce the moving of DOC inmates.”

City Attorney Chris Brown said the resolution might be ready by the next council meeting, but “it’s important to remember that the same people who passed the law also passed the budget to get them out of the law.”

“In order to meet their legal obligations under the general law, it could involve actually building another prison facility, which they may not have the economic incentive to do,” Brown said. “So we’re dealing with the same bunch of people in Richmond, but we will try to bring some pressure on.”

Council member Chris Jones said that while it’s good they’re working on a resolution, it’s unlikely any elected officials or the candidates for governor are going to enact real change.

“Until we come together as a community and literally start picking up the phone, and sending the emails, and making the trips, and making a true ask, it’s not going to change,” Jones said.

Jones said it shouldn’t be a political issue because it’s a simple matter of the city losing money because of the state’s decision. 

“We’re taking care of people who have nothing to do with even [committing] a crime in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County,” he said. “So whether you’re fiscally conservative, whether you have a passion about seeing less people incarcerated, whether you want to see more state funds going into education, whatever your spin is, we should be totally against this. And there’s no excuse for this.”

Jones said the way to challenge this is before November, because it would help to set up that election outcome.

In terms of overall criminal justice approaches, Sottaceti said the city is taking positive steps and incorporating incarceration alternatives, such as crisis intervention training and the drug court, to maintain a ratio of 3:1 between individuals who run afoul of the law and those that are incarcerated.

“We need to make a decision about what the tolerance of our community is for decriminalizing other offenses,” Sottaceti said. “And that’s where we make the effect. It’s not going to be at the generally local level. It’s going to be at the commonwealth level.”

He also said the Community Criminal Justice Board has started working with the Virginia Crime Commission to form a more direct line into Richmond to try and address some of those more systemic, state-level issues.

City manager’s resignation

After City Manager Eric Campbell announced Monday he would resign effective Dec. 31, Vice Mayor Sal Romero told The Citizen in an interview that working to find his replacement is a matter “that council has to discuss together, so I anticipate that will happen in the very near future.”

When asked what kinds of qualities Campell has exhibited in his role that he’d like to see in a future city manager, Romero said he’s been “professional, just a strong leader.”

“He has a lot of reputation, is fairly well respected within the staff, knows management of city government, that’s key,” Romero said. “Obviously he’s one who has a lot of experience, he’s worked in large cities, small cities, and he’s someone that’s very available.”

He said that Campell reached out to him so he knew that this was coming and is thankful that he’s been able to serve the city. 

“So I’m glad that we were able to enjoy him and enjoy his leadership,” Romero said.

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