By Mannix Porterfield
West Virginia’s prisons and jails are bursting at the seams, begging for some decisive action by the Legislature this winter to relieve the congestion.
One lawmaker close to the problem, Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, feels the issue cannot be put off another year.
“I believe we’re at the point that it’s critical that this be addressed,” says Laird, whose four terms as Fayette County’s sheriff give him a deeper insight to the matter of overcrowded lockups.
“We can no longer continue to defer action, or we’re going to have real problems.”
Laird heads up the Senate delegation to a working group assigned to examine prison overcrowding for the Council of State Governments.
Earlier this month, Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, appointed Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, to the group, succeeding former Sen. Mark Wills, D-Kanawha.
Laird says the group planned to meet last week and pore over voluminous materials collected in its work on the issue.
“We’re at the point where we have to translate this into actual legislation and public policy,” Laird said.
“This is probably the most important step in the process. We’ve gotten the benefit of information that we’ve never had before. And then, it’s just a question of taking that and examining what the impact of that information is and what we can do legitimately to assist in our prison over-population problem.”
Without question, Laird says some legislation is going to surface in the 2013 session, which opens Feb. 13.
“It’s been an issue that’s involved all three branches of government,” the senator said.
“The governor’s office has been heavily involved. I think they’re working on drafting and introducing legislation early on in the session so we can attack the problem. The data is very insightful. We’ve never really had access to that information.”
For one thing, Laird says lawmakers need to make basic decisions on the increased use of community-based options as opposed to simply putting criminals behind already crowded bars.
“I think that will certainly be an important part of it,” he said.
Drug abuse figures to play a major role in all the legislative deliberations. Figures vary, but many consistently have said upward of 80 percent of all crimes are couched in some form of substance abuse.
At midweek, the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce jumped into the controversy with a surprise call for mandatory drug testing of all teachers and students. That ignited a lively talk about drugs. At one point, Raleigh County Commission President Dave Tolliver pointed out that the county’s bill to keep inmates at Southern Regional Jail is $2.5 million annually, and four-fifths of that can be attributed to drug offenses.
“That certainly feeds the problem,” Laird said of drug abuse.
“The substance abuse and addiction issue is heavily connected with our current criminal arrests occurring in West Virginia. So, we have to build that kind of treatment capacity to make people successful once they leave prison and re-enter society.”
Kessler termed overcrowding “a serious public policy issue that affects all West Virginia taxpayers.”
“It is imperative that a comprehensive plan and coordinated approach be developed to reverse the current trend of prison population growth.”
For Jenkins, the top priority is to safeguard the public and make the criminal element accountable for crimes.
“While that is job one, we must also look at the complete criminal justice system and make changes in those areas,” the senator said.
“Significant costs, like our prison overcrowding problem, continue to place enormous pressure on the taxpayers of West Virginia. I appreciate the appointment to help craft real, meaningful solutions to these difficult issues.”
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