Lawmakers, corrections officials discuss ideas to solve jail ove - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Lawmakers, corrections officials discuss ideas to solve jail overcrowding problem

Posted: Updated:

Despite rising costs and inmate numbers, it doesn't seem like building new facilities is on anyone's agenda to curb West Virginia's crowded correctional system problems.

During a panel discussion for the media at an Associated Press sponsored legislative preview, members of the Legislature and the West Virginia Division of Corrections addressed the issues facing the system.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said the system is "at crisis stage right now," because the 5,400 prison beds are almost always occupied, and nearly 2,000 people every day are sent to one of the 10 regional jails throughout the state because there is no room in the prison system.

"As a citizen, as a father and a grandfather in the state of West Virginia, I certainly would rather see tax dollars go to another area besides the construction of a new prison," Rubenstein said. "And I think that some of the recommendations from the Council of State Government, as we work collectively with all three branches of government, there is certainly some potential to control the population and to do things in a manner that would hopefully avoid any type of talk about construction of a new prison."

He said constructing a new prison could cost anywhere from $150 million to $200 million, and the other panelists: Regional Jails Director Joe DeLong, Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, and Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, all agreed that new construction would be a last resort.

DeLong said the actual regional jail population is in line with what their housing capacity is, so the over-crowding issues come strictly from housing state-sentenced inmates that weren't supposed to be in the jails.

Lane said he thinks the state needs to put a continuum of resources in place as a more cost-effective way to stem the problems for individuals who may only need a low level of support. He said he also would like to see a uniform, consistent sentencing schedule for the state.

The Council for Justice report outlined the importance of risk assessment, and DeLong said the Division of Corrections agrees that it's beneficial to find a way to determine appropriate incarceration and treatment remedies.

"It will be beneficial, as we move forward, in finding a way we can use incarceration as a means of protecting society from people that we're afraid of as opposed to a place we put everybody we're just mad at," DeLong said. "One thing we don't want to do is take low-risk, perhaps addicts, or people who have committed other types of offenses and put them in a system where we train them and release them to become higher-risk."

DeLong said risk assessment has been a part of successful reform packages in other states, and it might be hard to quantify its importance as an individual item, but it works as part of a larger program.

Rubenstein said he's proud of the educational and residential substance abuse treatment units that are in place in the state's facilities.

"If you had someone on a unit for six months to a year, and they've got an addiction and they're going back into the community, then they're unable to access resources for three months or later, that's a recipe for disaster in my mind," Rubenstein said.

Palumbo and Lane agreed that there probably would not be any legislation to create a new treatment facility.

The Council for Justice report also suggested supervision for individuals once they're released from corrections facilities, something both Lane and Palumbo said the Legislature has looked at in the past.

Palumbo said last year a bill would have shortened sentences by six months but included supervision.

"They're getting out one way or the other," he said. "I think there are plenty of studies that indicate if people are supervised on their release, the chances of their committing another crime significantly decrease."

Rubenstein fielded a question about the public perception that facilities sometimes "coddle" inmates, but he said some of the regional jails are bigger than his hometown of Thomas.

"When I wake up every day, my main concern is the professional, dedicated staff that work for the Division of Corrections," Rubenstein said. "Ninety-five percent of these individuals come back out into society based on their sentence.

"I feel we have a real challenge; one of our main objectives should be to prepare them for successful re-entry."

Rubenstein said West Virginia has a 28.5 percent recidivism rate, which is the sixth lowest in the nation, but he would like that to be a lower number.

"The Legislature has been good to the Division of Corrections through the years," he said.