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A law signed by Governor Tomblin in April is already having its intended effect of decreasing the state’s prison population. Legislators meeting this week in Charleston got an update on how Senate Bill 371, the governor’s prison reform bill, is doing.
State lawmakers are presented with projections all the time. The projected annual revenue, for example, is constantly talked about within the corridors of the Capitol because in recent years, those projections have shown major declines in funds.
But when legislators were presented another projection not meeting its mark, Deputy General Counsel for the governor Joseph Garcia said this was one to celebrate.
“So, at the end of this year, it was projected that we were going to have 7,531 inmates,” Garcia said.
But instead of following that trend, Garcia said the actual number of inmates is down by more than 250 since April.
And what about the inmate population being held in regional jails because of prison overcrowding? Garcia said that number is shrinking too.
“There has been a reduction of 554 people in the Regional Jail system,” he said.
Garcia attributes that reduction to the opening of a new Division of Corrections adult facility on the campus of the former Salem Industrial Home for Youth and to the governor’s prison reform bill.
It focused on two areas: dealing quickly with the state prison overpopulation and reducing the rate former inmates reoffend and go back to prison, known as recidivism.
Garcia said we’re now seeing the short term fixes of the bill—changes at the state Parole Board among others—kicking in. In a few years, he believes the numbers will be even stronger when programs like mandatory supervision take effect.
“We’ve made some substantial progress with respect to these numbers,” Garcia said. “We weren’t expecting to get these kinds of results this early and so it shows we’re going in the right direction.”
But state lawmakers want to make sure the trend continues and many believe it can be done with more access to programming.
At state prisons, inmates have access to rehabilitation classes to prepare them to reenter society, things like anger management or parenting courses, but state prisons are so crowded that the overflow of inmates—more than 1,100 of them—are being held in regional jails where they don’t have access to these programs.
“Why can’t we look at providing those services in the Regional Jails?” Senator Donald Cookman, a former circuit judge, asked during a Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jails and Correctional Facility Authority. “It seems to me that it can be done and be a great savings to the taxpayers and, in addition to that, a great help for society.”
Garcia said the option is something the governor’s office would consider in the future.
Dennis Foreman, Chairman of the state Parole Board, said it’s an idea he supports.
While completing these programs aren’t required to be seen by the parole board—Foreman said they help.
Having a psychological assessment, a post release housing plan and reviewing an inmate’s crime and behavior while incarcerated are the major considerations–he added those who have taken classes are more likely to actually receive parole, getting them out of the overcrowded system more quickly.
“Anybody that goes through the treatment and does everything that they’re supposed to do basically to rehabilitate, once they’re rehabilitated then we’re ready to blow them out the door if they’re not a danger to society,” Foreman said. “When you don’t have the treatment, if you have to sit and wait an extra 6 months and we’re not able to see them, they’re just sitting there not getting anything accomplished.”
“They’ve got them in the regional jails, if they can get the treatment in the regional jails, the classes, it would be so much better for everybody concerned and the rates would definitely improve.”
However, the governor’s office and the state Division of Corrections are currently looking at the option of providing these services by transferring inmates to out of state private prisons.
Constitutionally, inmates would have to volunteer for a transfer and those private facilities would have to offer the same courses as West Virginia until room becomes available for the inmate at an in state facility.
But Joe DeLong, Acting Director of the Regional Jail Authority, told the committee providing the classes now at his facilities can be done. In fact, he proposed the idea to the legislature two years ago.
“We felt at that time by making the investment to offer those programs, if we could get those people the programs they needed and if the parole board kept paroling at the same rate they were, we could reduce the future incarceration cost of about $8 million a year,” he said.
DeLong said in order to offer classes his agency would need one additional counselor at all ten facilities and more equipment like desks or computers. He estimated it would cost about $750,000 a year to provide the same level of programming in the regional jails as in the state prisons.
The catch- regional jails are mainly funded by a daily rate charged to the counties to house their prisoners and DeLong said he doesn’t feel comfortable charging the counties for a service given to inmates that should be in state funded prisons.
“I could do it now. I probably have that authority to pull it off and reshuffle the deck that I have to do it now,” he said. “I’ve just always taken the position that I wasn’t willing to share that cost across the board with the counties because I didn’t think it was fair for that operational expense to be spread into all of per diem and for the counties to be footing the bill for a state sentenced inmates programs.”
DeLong added if the legislature choose to appropriate him that money, he would make the programming available.
Garcia said the governor’s office is still in the exploratory phases of sending inmates to out of state prisons for access to programming. He said they are unsure of the cost as of yet and how doing so would compare to offering the programming instead at the regional jail level.