The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 24, 2013

Laird questions Corrections on why early prison releases delayed

Senator says program an important step to relieve overcrowding of facilities

CHARLESTON — Are correctional agencies making progress in relieving congestion inside West Virginia’s prisons and jails, or merely creating an “optical illusion” that forces more action in January by the Legislature?

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, posed that question Monday to Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein, in an attempt to learn if any progress has been made toward implementing the provisions of SB371, approved last winter in a move to address prison overcrowding.

“We’re moving along with those items in SB371 that we’ve got control over,” the commissioner told Laird, co-chairman of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority.

Specifically, Laird wanted to know if the state has moved to implement the early release provision for non-violent offenders, but was told that this is being delayed until two staffers are hired to accomplish this.

Laird seemed puzzled by the delay, saying the hiring of two people should be “a no-brainer” and this should proceed to get a critical part of SB371 moving.

“I want to make sure there’s a sense of urgency attached to that,” the senator said.

“I would view the failure to hire two staff members that are key and critical to implement this requirement of the law a little bit too lethargic.”

Rubenstein told the co-chairman he doesn’t know if judicial resistance to the early release phase of the law has surfaced.

In a related development, John Lopez, program director for the Regional Jail Authority, told the committee that a Cincinnati firm has developed a pre-sentencing screen, another provision of SB371, to determine inmates eligible for early release.

“We’re right where we need to be,” he said.

As he spoke, there were 563 inmates sleeping on the floors of the 10 regional jails because of crowded conditions. Combined, the jails are holding 1,652 state-sentenced inmates.

Rubenstein said the DOC’s approach is to work with the inmates on “the front end,” those facing short terms for such offenses as drug crimes, and they likely are in for 11 months, while those in for the long haul, such as murder, conceivably be kept at a regional jail for up to two years.

The commissioner pointed out that substance abuse — covering drugs and alcohol — accounts for more than 80 percent of those incarcerated.

Rubenstein said his agency pays between $31 million and $34 million annually to keep its convicts at regional jails.

On another matter, Stephanie Bond, acting director of the Division of Juvenile Services, told the panel that the Gene Spadaro facility in Mount Hope is being changed from a “staff secure” to a lockdown status.

The move didn’t sit well with the other co-chairman, Delegate Dave Perry, also D-Fayette.

“It bothers me in terms of the preparations made and the awareness of the local community around it,” he said.

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