SOUTH CHARLESTON - To say the issues of prison overcrowding and regional jail expenses in West Virginia are complex might be an understatement, as shown Thursday morning during the 2013 Associated Press Legislative Lookahead.
A 2013 Justice Reinvestment report conducted by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governors analyzed West Virginia's corrections policies and how it could more efficiently spend funds.
The report, which was released in January, summarized three challenges: the state's growing prison population; unsupervised prisoner release after incarceration; and a failure of offenders to complete the terms of probation or parole, often caused by an individual's substance abuse.
A panel of West Virginia legislators and Department of Corrections officials discussed the issues facing West Virginia’s prisons and what action the Legislature might take this year to correct those issues. The panel discussion Thursday morning was part of the Associated Press’ Legislative Lookahead, a legislative preview the Associated Press sponsors for members of West Virginia’s media. Participating were, from left, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein, Regional Jails Director Joe DeLong, House Judiciary Committee member Del. Patrick Lane and Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Corey Palumbo. The panel was moderated by Don Smith, executive director of West Virginia Press Association. -- Courtesy of the West Virginia Press Association
Jim Rubenstein, corrections commissioner, said the state's prison overcrowding problem is currently at a "crisis stage."
"Growth has been continual," Rubenstein said. "Any given day, our beds are full."
Joe DeLong, regional jails director, said it is a common misconception that West Virginia's jail system, too, has a problem with overcrowding. Regional jails are fine, DeLong said. The problem lies in the overflow of state-sentenced inmates.
"If we deal with the rise in the state-sentenced population that's overflowing into the jails, curb that growth a little bit and scale back on those numbers ... we should be in good shape," DeLong said.
While building another prison to house the overflow of prisoners is an obvious solution, a project which legislators and corrections officials say could cost up to $200 million, the panel said it should be a last resort.
"At this point, I don't believe it's necessary to do that," said Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Charleston. "I think that we can enact some other measures to control the population and yet still keep West Virginia citizens safe."
Recidivism, an individual's recommitting of crimes once released, was discussed as a major issue for the state as well. Referencing the report, the panel said, currently, offenders released early are not supervised for any period of time.
"I think there are plenty of studies that indicate if people are supervised upon their release, the chances of them committing another crime significantly decrease," Palumbo said.
Del. Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, voiced concern, however, about some of the language in the report, which may suggest all offenders, even those of violent crimes, are worthy of supervised early release.
"We're pretty confident that's not where the report was meant to go, but that is one of the suggestions," Lane said. "We'd have to look at the specific language in the bill to make sure that it doesn't cover those violent offenders."
Lane said the state should look at individual crimes differently from one another, which might aid in cutting costs. Nine hundred new commits to correctional facilities that were identified as drug-related cost the state about $22 million per year, Lane said, referencing the report.
"Possession is, in my mind, a little bit different than committing a crime to fund the underlying drug addiction, and they need to be treated differently," Lane said.
The lookahead, which was held at Marshall University's South Charleston campus, was comprised of four sessions in which lawmakers, as well as state administrators and department heads, formed panels to discuss some of the hottest issues of this year's legislative session.
The 81st Legislature will begin Wednesday with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's State of the State Address.
(Molenda can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)