(01/23/2008)
Intro: As the 2008 legislature convenes, an overview about West Virginia locking up more people, the push to build more prisons and concerns that counties could be bankrupted by the costs. - Bob Weaver

WV LEADING NATION WITH LOCK-UPS

West Virginia, despite having one of the lowest crime rates in America, says it is facing a jail space crunch, projecting nearly 3,000 more inmates than the number of beds currently available.

Critics are asking whether or not WV really has more criminals than other states, or is the state locking up offenders that should not be locked up. Maybe they're keeping them longer.

West Virginia's projections mean the inmate population in 2015 would rank the state second in the nation in the rate of annual inmate population growth.

Currently the state's regional jails are stacking offenders, although some efforts are being made to enlist lawmakers and the judiciary to address sentencing guidelines and expand community corrections operations.

The state Division of Criminal Justice Services Statistical Analysis Center says there will be 7,369 inmates admitted to state correctional facilities by 2015. In the most recent head-count from 2005, the system had 5,312 inmates.

Currently the correction's department is adding 220 beds at Huttonsville Correctional Center at Randolph County and 165 beds at Lakin Correctional Facility for Women near Point Pleasant. The cost is $22.5 million.

Blueprints are ready for a 268-bed addition at the facility at St. Marys and a 194-bed addition at Mt. Olive, but there's no money for it right now.

Corrections officials asked lawmakers last year to build a new 1,200-bed prison for $105 to $120 million.

Some officials have suggested to lawmakers that they modify the punishment for people convicted of third-offense drunken driving, which is a felony. Current law puts these people in prison for up to three years. This population is about 10% of the prison population.

Actually providing substance abuse treatment would remove about 200 prisoners, while others suggest modifying jailing marijuana offenders.

In 2004, seven out of 10 people sentenced to prison were convicted of a non-violent offense. The lengths of sentences for violent offenses have decreased. The sentences for non-violent offenses increased.

The report given lawmakers last year showed that the state has historically not given people probation for relatively minor offenses and that the state was in the bottom 20 percent in the nation for releasing inmates on parole.

Community corrections programs like day report centers and drug and mental health courts are catching on slowly.

THE PROBLEM WITH COSTS

Cabell County Commissioner Scott Bias says the growing regional jail bills that counties face are nothing more than "a big black hole."

The Cabell County Commission refused to pay its full regional jail bill, but was later ordered by a court to pay up.

Commissioner Bias says counties can no longer afford to pay the per-day charge for each person incarcerated in their counties.

He says state laws should be changed to require the arresting agencies to pay the jail bill, not the county commissions.

A bill to that effect made little progress in the legislature.

"It's about accountability. Everybody should pay for their own and if everybody paid for their own it would take care of itself," said Bias.

Jail costs will continue to be a big-ticket item for counties, some claiming the bill will push them into bankruptcy.


Hur Herald ©from Sunny Cal
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