W.Va. Needs to address prison overcrowding

West Virginia’s state constitution prohibits sending prisoners to jails in other states but a proposal is being considered to contract with private companies willing to temporarily take care of these offenders in another state.

Because of overcrowding in West Virginia’s state-run jails, at least two private companies — Corrections Corporation of America from Nashville, Tenn., and Community Education Centers of Kentucky recently attended a pre-bid meeting on this proposal. Both expressed an interest in providing services to West Virginia prisoners.

The Charleston Daily Mail reported more than a month ago that West Virginia’s health care costs for prisoners rose from $15.7 million to $21.7 million — a 38 percent increase between 2001 and 2008. But even with that jump, this state ranks 36th out of 44 states, according to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Communications Director Lawrence Messina claims that many prisoners are spending the front part of their sentences in regional jails, facilities built by county governments around the state.

State officials have turned to this alternative because of the lack of space in the state-run prisons. And the Division of Corrections in West Virginia is currently waiting on a ruling from the state Supreme Court on the problem of overcrowded state prisons.

Messina said these regional jails don’t offer rehabilitative programs, classes and treatments required for prisoners to be eligible for parole, even when their time has been served. To overcome the state constitutional provision that prohibits sending prisoners out of state, an inmate would be required to volunteer to leave the state to complete his or her sentencing requirements at a private, for-profit jail.

Another problem is a petition filed with the state Supreme Court of Appeals by public defender George Castelle, who claims the West Virginia Division of Corrections has failed to implement other, less costly, measures than shipping prisoners out of state.

Castelle claims these cheaper steps include awarding extra good time, coming up with special programs to provide inmates with additional chances to earn extra good time that would reduce their stays and earmarking aging and other “appropriate prisoners” for commutations of sentences.

According to Castelle, the DOC should comply with provisions of a 2002 Long-Term Plan instead of looking to ship prisoners out of state which he describes as “expensive and constitutionally questionable.” Right now, DOC is going to concentrate on efforts to improve community-based corrections resources and is also in the process of a research-driven study of its current operations, Messina said.

Meanwhile, as West Virginia closes in on the halfway mark for tax collections for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2014, the shortfall in estimated state revenue collections continues to exceed projections. Budget Director Mike McKown said last week the latest numbers indicate the state has collected about $57 million less in taxes than expected at this point.

McKown told a Charleston newspaper reporter last week that mid-year spending cuts remain a strong possibility as a result of those numbers. Those cuts could come early in the session of the 2014 Legislature, which convenes on Jan. 8.

Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow said personal income tax collections make up the bulk of the revenue shortfall this budget year. The state started the year almost $29 million in the hole on personal income tax collections and McKown said he thinks those collections will wind up about $37 million short of estimates.

 

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