Officials outline complex prison issues

SOUTH CHARLESTON – To say the issues of prison overcrowding and regional jail expenses are complex might be an understatement as shown Thursday 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 the state could more efficiently spend funds.

The report, which was released in January, summarized three challenges. These challenges include the state’s growing prison population, unsupervised prisoner release after incarceration and a failure of offenders to complete the terms of probation or parole, which is often caused by an individual’s substance abuse, according to the report.

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, a project which legislators and corrections officials say could cost up to $200 million, to house the overflow of prisoners is an obvious solution, 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-Kanawha. “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.

Lane 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.

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 dollars per year, Lane said.

“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 Feb. 13 with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s State of the State Address.