Lawmakers eye parole role in inmate crowding

CHARLESTON (AP) — Some West Virginia inmates rent apartments months in advance of their parole hearings to show they have a place to go if they’re released, lawmakers said Monday as they studied the state’s inmate crowding crisis.

Presenting a suitable home plan is one of several hurdles an inmate must clear to appear before the Parole Board, board Chairman Dennis Foreman told the House-Senate oversight committee. Others include a psychological evaluation and an updated investigatory report similar to the one conducted before the inmate was sentenced.

Committee Co-Chairman William Laird said he and his co-chair, Delegate David Perry, have learned of inmates at the Beckley Work-Release Center who rent apartments before their hearings. Some landlords in southern West Virginia appear to be exploiting the situation, said Laird, a state senator and like Perry a Fayette County Democrat.

“To me it’s a bit disturbing that you can’t subsequently meet that condition,” said Laird, a former county sheriff. “Why should I have to go out and pay six month’s rent on an empty apartment merely to satisfy a technical requirement of parole eligibility?”

Foreman said state law limits options for inmates who can’t secure housing but are otherwise eligible for parole. Inmates can satisfy the requirement, for instance, by showing there’s available space at a halfway house, Foreman said.

“There are many times where these people have burned their bridges … Nobody wants them,” Foreman told the committee.

One-third of inmates eligible for parole during any given month last year were granted it, or 1,334 inmates out of 4,045 deemed eligible in all of 2011, according to board figures provided for Monday’s meeting.

Nearly as many, 1,207 inmates, saw decisions in their cases postponed because of a lack of information required by the board for its reviews.

“It seems as if home plans are the main part of it, or a big portion of it,” Laird said of that figure.

The board granted parole in 47 percent of the cases last year in which it made a decision, with 1,504 inmates denied parole.

The joint oversight committee continues to review inmate crowding alongside a recently launched study by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. Unveiled last week by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other state leaders, the project plans to scrutinize an array of data and research to develop policy proposals with the help of a working group assembled by Tomblin. The working group includes lawmakers from both chambers and both parties.

Initial figures from the Justice Reinvestment study show that revoked paroles accounted for 15 percent of the people sent to prison last year, or 490 people. Laird noted Monday that just over half those people lost their parole because of technical violations, as opposed to committing new crimes. Foreman said that most of those technical violations involve drugs, adding that parole officers frequently pursue such alternatives as home confinement or jail for five days to steer a parolee back toward following the rules of release.

“The parole officers do everything they can to keep them in line,” Foreman said. He added, “Many times, they will still re-offend after you try everything with them.”

Foreman also urged lawmakers to consider boosting the pay of the board’s staff. Seven staffers send out notices to victims, law enforcement and others in advance of the 340 to 400 parole hearings conducted each month. Five of those employees are paid $21,000 annually after four or more years with the board, he said. The board’s executive secretary receives $28,000 annually after several unsuccessful attempts by Foreman to win her a raise, he said.

“This woman is a valuable asset to the Parole Board,” Foreman said. “I’m having a hard time keeping her from going. That’s what we have to deal with daily.”

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