Solutions sought for prison crowding
SOUTH CHARLESTON -- Prison overcrowding and the drug abuse epidemic fueling it have become crises in West Virginia, corrections officials and state lawmakers said Thursday.
During the annual Associated Press Legislative Lookahead in South Charleston, officials told reporters they have no choice but to address those issues when the Legislature's 60-day session kicks off next week. The state prison system's 5,400 beds are full on any given day and another 1,700 to 1,800 prisoners are serving their sentences at one of 10 regional jails, which are meant for inmates awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubinstein said.
"I think we have to look at things in a comprehensive manner," Rubinstein said. "There's not one thing that is going to solve it."
Rubinstein said West Virginia's prison population is growing faster than any other state's and that 80 percent of the incarcerations are directly or indirectly related to drugs. Building a new prison to support those rising trends would cost $150 to $200 million to build and $30 million to operate annually, he said.
Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers say it is unlikely they will head in that direction. They also said there probably won't be support for building a secure substance abuse facility for nonviolent drug offenders because of tight budget constraints.
Improving the assessment of a prisoner before they are sentenced, strengthening supervision after a prisoner is released and investing in existing community-based drug treatment programs, however, might get traction.
"We have to have a continuum of options available," Kanawha County Delegate Patrick Lane said. "Our problem is we have a lot of treatment options and support programs in prison, but there isn't much available short of that."
Many of the changes should focus on reducing West Virginia's recidivism rate, Rubinstein said. He said 28.5 percent of prisoners released from prison will commit another crime. Studies have shown that drug treatment and GED programs in prison have helped, but those efforts are difficult to maintain when prisons are overcrowded, Senate President Jeff Kessler said.
That's why prisoners should undergo improved assessments before sentencing so judges can better determine whether they are candidates for probation, parole or community sentencing, Kessler and Regional Jail Authority Executive Director Joe DeLong said.
"We need to use incarceration as a means of protecting the public from people we're afraid of as opposed to using it as a place to put people who we're mad at," DeLong said.
Democrat and Republican lawmakers also agreed greater supervision is needed after a prisoner's release, but they differed on a bipartisan panel's recommendation that prisoners should be released six months early with supervision.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said he is concerned lawmakers will become overzealous in letting prisoners out early to save costs. Lane added that reducing sentences for existing or future prisoners raises questions about fairness.
House Speaker Rick Thompson said he knows there are genuine concerns among lawmakers about shortening prison terms, but those fears can be alleviated if improvements are made in assessing prisoners prior to sentencing and investing in substance abuse treatment facilities.
"We need about $20-$25 million for treatment facilities to do what they were intended to do," Thompson said. "It's money well invested, and it's money we will get back by preventing people from going back to prison."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin also spoke to reporters about the issue Thursday. Though he didn't divulge any specific proposals, he said reducing the state's recidivism rate is key.
"When people are released from the prison system, they should have the skills, the ability and the training to go back into society and become productive citizens," he said.
Tomblin also said he will unveil a new public awareness program next week called "Get High, Don't Get Hired." The campaign will focus on deterring drug abuse among people looking for employment.
Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.