Lawmakers must address prison overcrowding

Hopefully, when members of the West Virginia Legislature convene in Charleston next week for three days of interim committee meetings, the joint House-Senate panel assigned the task of coming up with a solution for this state’s increasingly overcrowded prison facilities will begin considering concrete proposals to solve that problem.

Carl Reynolds, a retired Texas courts administrator who now serves as a policy adviser for the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments, recently told legislators here they have a “kind of an analysis-paralysis situation.”

“You’ve studied it to death, and you’re not getting where you need to go,” he concluded. He promised that the Justice Center will help “break that logjam just as it did in the state of Texas where it helped reduce the prison inmate population there by 8,000 over a three-year period.

West Virginia’s prison population has quadrupled in the past 22 years to nearly 6,900 inmates currently. With every bed full at the state’s prison facilities, some 1,800 felons — including nearly 600 who have been convicted of killings, sexual assaults and other violent crimes — are now serving time in the 10 regional jails.

This state’s prison population grew more than any state in the nation between 2000 and 2009 with an aging population that only increased 2.5 percent during that 10-year span. And West Virginia also had the country’s third-lowest rate of adults on probation.

During the 2011 fiscal year, this state’s corrections system spend $158 million to house the overflow of prison inmates that should have been in state prisons at the 10 regional jails. That amount is close the estimated cost of a new state prison facility but most observers believe that a new state prison that could accommodate 200 would be filled up as soon as it is opened.

During the regular 60-day legislative session earlier this year, the Republican minority in the House of Delegates killed a bill that would have revised sentencing laws and released more prisoners on parole that was recommended by the state Supreme Court a decade earlier.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, led the GOP effort to halt that legislation and doesn’t like the current efforts by a 22-member working group that hopes to recommend some potential solutions. He has made it clear now that he and others don’t want to make it easier to release inmates now behind bars.

But Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, has a different view. A former sheriff who served four terms in Fayette County, said recently that he believes “we’re literally at the point where we can’t kick the can down the road and defer attention to this matter anymore. I can’t think of any more important public policy issue facing our Legislature today.”

Many West Virginians who have been following this issue with growing concerns most likely agree.

Meanwhile, West Virginia is one of 46 states that signed a settlement with this nation’s largest tobacco companies 14 years ago to cover the cost to these states of health care for tobacco-related illnesses. West Virginia was due to receive nearly $1.7 billion covering a period up to 2025 in annual installments.

Once these annual payments were locked in, the state then sold 40-year bonds in 2007 to raise $911 million, using that money to reduce the unfunded liability in the state’s Teacher’s Retirement System. The only factor not expected was that the number of people who quit smoking could reduce each state’s annual settlement payment that could be used to retire these bonds.

In 2009, about 9 percent of the people in this country decided to quit smoking and West Virginia’s annual check from the tobacco companies dropped from a high of $80 million a few years back to $62.5 million last year. But that figure is climbing again and is expected to exceed $65 million this year because the number of people giving up smoking has dropped to about 3 percent annually the last couple of years.

So future payments will be more than enough to cover the state’s debt service payment of about $60 million on the 2007 bond issue for the Teacher’s Retirement System. And West Virginia is also involved in a multi-state effort to make roll-your-own cigarette shops contribute to the tobacco escrow fund that would increase the annual payments to each participating state.

Finally, the recent announcement that federal prosecutors want to withhold evidence from the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010 until next January that they say could help former shareholders who have filed a civil case against suggests there could still be criminal charges filed against top Massey Energy executives.

This comes after U. S. District Judge Irene Berger last month delayed the sentencing of former UBB superintendent Gary May until October to give prosecutors more time to develop his cooperation.

Assistant U. S. Attorney Steve Ruby indicated in court documents that prosecutors may be looking to some of the top corporate officials as potential “targets” of the criminal investigation. And one of the individuals at the “top of the corporate ladder” who could become one of those targets in the criminal case is former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

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