When the Legislature convenes its regular session next month, one of the big items deals more with lawbreakers than lawmakers.

A big item facing the West Virginia lawmakers is how to pay for lawbreakers in the state's jail system.

For several years, counties around the state have struggled to come up with enough money to pay the state Regional Jail and Correctional Facilities Authority for inmates.

Cabell County is one of several that contend they don't have enough money to pay the bill which is millions of dollars each year.

Small, rural counties with a small tax base have similar problems.

The dispute reached the state Supreme Court of Appeals, which recently issued a writ of mandamus saying the Regional Jail Authority is right - counties have to pay up.

"Given this Court's duty to uphold the laws of this state, which includes the enactments of our Legislature, we are ... constrained to recognize the mandatory language directing that the counties 'shall pay' for the costs of operating the regional jail facilities," wrote Justice Joseph P. Albright in the majority's opinion.

The justices didn't give the Regional Jail Authority a total pass.

In Albright's decision, the justices said the state agency must reconsider the daily fee it charges counties for keeping their inmates, and outlined several steps it would like to see the Legislature consider.

- Whether the per-diem rate charged by the state is a uniform or distinct rate in regard to each regional jail.

- Whether the per-diem rate should be calculated based upon the bed capacity of each jail or the facility's historical population.

- What steps the authority needs to take to increase those per-diem rates, including whether members of the oversight board can attend meetings via telephone.

West Virginia counties hope lawmakers take up other issues in regard to the regional jails, specifically how best to keep people out of them in the first place.

The state continues to lock-up more offenders, although the crime rate goes down. The WV County Commission Association says the issue is locking up people who are not dangerous and pose a risk.

"The regional jail is a cost that counties have little control over," said Patti Hamilton, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties. "So we are approaching this by looking at the number of people locked up."

Hamilton said every year more than 100,000 people have their driver's licenses revoked.

She said some of those drivers lose their license because of driving under the influence, while others have it revoked for simply not paying a fine.

"If those drivers are caught behind the wheel, they are arrested and thrown in the regional jail. And the county gets the bill," Hamilton said.

"About 6,174 people were incarcerated last year for driving on a revoked license, and only a small portion of that was due to DUI," she said.

Hamilton said the counties are asking lawmakers to consider creating a "work license" that would allow people who have had their licenses revoked for failure to pay a citation to continue to drive for work.

That way, they said, the person can still make a living and pay that citation.

"We're creating a pauper's prison...If you have your license revoked for non-payment of a fine, you can't drive to work to make money to pay your fine...If the end result is to push someone deeper into a hole, mission accomplished," opponents said.

Counties are asking the legislature to consider asking the agencies that make the initial arrest to pay for the first night of incarceration.

That's something arresting agencies haven't ever had to do before.

Tom Bell, chief tax deputy, said the old jail system only cost the county about $24 a day, half of what it is today.

Twenty percent of the Cabell budget goes to housing inmates or $3 to $3.5 million, contending the county would like to be able to use that money for something with a more positive outcome.

The third option suggested by Hamilton for counties to levy a tax on citizens to help pay for the jails. She admitted the tax would not be popular, but counties may have no other option.

"Being hard on crime is politically popular, and we all want public safety, but paying for it is not a popular thing," she said.