Quicker access to prisons and jails by members of the Legislature so they can investigate inmate complaints or follow up on other issues should come soon with special ID cards.

In July interims, the Division of Corrections plans to provide a photographer to take pictures of any member of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility who wants a card.

In recent years, the panel has attempted to conduct surprise inspections at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County.

Invariably, however, it was obvious on arrival that word had leaked out, removing the element of surprise.

What’s more, some facilities haven’t always been open to individual members when they came calling, Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, a co-chairman of the committee, said afterward.

“There have been instances in the past where members have been denied admission,” he said.

For that reason and others, Perry said he and fellow co-chairman Sen. Bill Laird, also D-Fayette, want the cards issued to members of their committee.

“This is a formal process where denial could not occur, and that immediate access would be permitted and we would be allowed,” Perry said.

Laird said he encountered no problems last year while personally inspecting Central Regional Jail in Braxton County.

“I think part of our duties and responsibilities as members of this committee is to periodically go out to the institutional level and see what’s going on,” the former sheriff said.

Laird said he got inside by merely showing his driver’s license but emphasized it is best to follow Division of Corrections protocol by having the special ID card so there is no doubt if a lawmaker suddenly appears at the gate and wants inside.

Actually, each member will get two cards — one that is left at the desk of an institution, the other one carried at all times while touring a facility.

By having them, Perry said, lawmakers also can work in small teams to visit a facility and “gain entry and access in a quicker, more expeditious way and allows less knowledge of that visit to occur.”

Commissioner Jim Rubenstein advised the panel that he has already set up a program to provide exiting inmates a form of ID to use in re-entry into society, such as while seeking employment.

On another matter, Juveniles Services Director Dale Humphreys suggested the concept of a day reporting center is having a positive impact by lessening the number of detainees in his facilities.

Occupancy is in the 60 percent range, he told the committee.

“Our vacancy rate is about 30 percent right now,” he said. “At one time, it was only 20 percent.

“We’re actually decreasing the number of placements and increasing the numbers in day reporting.”

Even so, he cautioned, the juvenile criminal population normally dovetails the adults.

“Juveniles are just like adults,” he said.

“They’re just going to go up. The numbers are getting larger every year. We can’t expect juveniles not to. The only thing we’re doing is slowing it down or maybe stabilizing it at a faster rate than we ever did.”

Until some drastic changes come, Humphreys said, “I think in our society we’re always going to see increasing numbers.”

Running a detention center is an annual outlay of $2 million, employing about 45, while a day reporting center, staffed by six or seven, costs about $300,000, he said.

“So you can see the savings,” he said, adding he would gladly work with officials in any region of the state that lacks a day reporting center for juveniles to get one started.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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