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Published: Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Page: 5A

Although they failed to act on reform efforts earlier this year, state legislators complained Monday that no one had presented them a solution to the state's prison overcrowding problem.

"We have had a lack of leadership in many areas in solving this problem," said Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph.

Members of a legislative oversight commission on jails had their monthly committee meeting Monday morning at the state Capitol.

As has happened on a near-monthly basis for the past few years, lawmakers once again were presented with a grim picture.

The state's prisons are filled to the max; about 1,800 Division of Corrections inmates are lodged in regional jails; nearly 700 inmates are sleeping on the floor; and corrections officers are overworked, underpaid and often leave to find jobs elsewhere.

It's not news. In fact, some agency representatives quietly joke they've been given the same report month after month, just with different numbers.

Committee members complained about a lack of progress.

"It seems like we talk about these things and then come back the next month and not actually do anything," Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, said.

"We see the same damn chart every month," Barnes said while holding a prison population report. "By golly, let's just quit looking at statistics, and let's do our best to try to come up with something."

But that "something" remains elusive.

A cavalcade of experts has been trotted before legislative committees over the last few years to give their take on what the state needs to do.

Suggestions have included a comprehensive review of sentencing guidelines to make sure minor crimes, such as fraudulent check writing, don't result in long prison sentences.

Other recommendations include beefing up community correction and pre-trial diversion programs to better deal with people who have committed crimes to feed addictions.

But that's where politics comes into play. Lawmakers are hesitant to pass reforms that reduce time behind bars for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."

Sometimes it takes court action to force the Legislature to act on an issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year ordered the state of California to release 33,000 inmates due to prison overcrowding.

In 1998, the West Virginia Supreme Court ordered the construction of new regional jails to ease overcrowding.

The court's most recent look at the state's prison system took place in 2005.

That year, the state Supreme Court upheld double-bunking to increase capacity. But Justice Larry Starcher, writing for the court's majority, pointed the finger at the governor and Legislature and said it was time for them to act.

"We do, however, urge the Executive and Legislative branches to undertake serious review of their respective roles and responsibilities for contributing to the current housing situation and to act with alacrity, to avoid the day when we or the federal courts are forced to intervene," Starcher wrote.

In 2009, then-Gov. Joe Manchin created the 18-member Governor's Commission on Prison Overcrowding.

Of the 14 solutions presented, lawmakers enacted all but two: Building a new, 1,200-bed state prison and expanding another 300-bed facility. While the other 12 recommendations were implemented, overcrowding continued.

The prison would come at a hefty cost. By some estimates, construction could run in excess of $200 million.

Some officials have argued that building another prison will simply delay the problem to a later date. In fact, the new facility wouldn't be large enough to house all of the Division of Corrections inmates currently housed in regional jails.

Tucker asked acting Regional Jail Authority director Joe DeLong on Monday if he thought it was time to build a new prison.

"That is a decision for the legislative body and not for me to make," DeLong said.

Last year, lawmakers drafted a 125-page bill on the issue.

That bill, introduced during this year's regular legislative session, would have retooled the criminal justice system, altered sentences for less severe drug crimes, released some inmates currently serving sentences, and revamped the state's probation and parole systems.

It also shifted funding for pre-trial, probation and parole programs to concentrate on those that prove more effective at reducing the chance a released inmate may commit another crime.

The bill was gutted in committee and ultimately failed to pass.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has since brought in the Council of State Governments' Justice Center to study the matter as part of their Justice Reinvestment project. The hope is an objective, outside study can help solve the problem without political interference.

"I'm beyond hopeful; I'm very optimistic that the new commission put together by the governor on this problem is going to find solutions," DeLong said.

Sen. Dan Foster, who helped write the bill that died this year, thinks the Legislature missed a key opportunity when it failed to pass the legislation.

"I'm frustrated, too, because I think we could have gotten the ball rolling," Foster said. "The sooner we get started, the better."

Foster said he has met with representatives of the Justice Reinvestment team and they're considering many measures that were in the rejected bill.

"I asked if they think it would have been helpful or not helpful if we had already gotten this in place this last year," he said. "They said it would have been helpful."

Foster hopes the Justice Reinvestment group's recommendations will be taken seriously during next year's legislative session.

He hopes the lack of a statewide election next year will boost the chances of something being passed.

"We've had three election years in a row - it's hard," Foster said. "I'm just frustrated, too."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-5148.

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