The State of West Virginia could realize an estimated $35 million in savings by changing the standards and methods by which inmates are released from prison on parole.
Lawmakers on Monday heard suggestions as to how to reallocate that money into re-integrating paroled inmates into their communities, and what sort of options have worked for other states that have reformed their parole systems.
The 2020 legislative session begins Wednesday, and will consider measures to alter the parole system in the Mountain State during this year’s session, House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said Monday during a Joint Judiciary Committee Meeting in the East Wing of the Capitol.
Legislators are participating in interim meetings Monday and Tuesday before the regular session begins.
Shott told members of the joint committee to expect parole reform legislation this session, saying that in addition to saving money, parole reform measures would alleviate prison overcrowding and could help with the state’s workforce participation rate.
“Everyone here knows that we’ve been focused on the workforce participation rate in this state, which is historically low … certainly this is one component of it — rehabbing individuals who are incarcerated, getting them back into the flow of life and participating in our economy.”
In November, the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation was operating with 11,053 inmates in all of its facilities, which were equipped to house 10,250 inmates, Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsy Jividen said.
At that time, Jividen described the state’s 10 regional jails as “bursting at the seams,” housing 5,137 inmates. The operating capacity for regional jails is 4,265, according to division officials.
The regional jail system houses people who are awaiting trial and those who are serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes and some nonviolent felonies, and the prison system houses those convicted and sentenced of felony crimes.
Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials estimated between 1,000 and 1,600 inmates would be released from prison in a year under parole reform, saving the state about $35 million, said Stacy Nowicki-Eldridge, general counsel for the Division of Corrections said.
That money likely would be used to hire more parole officers throughout the state, between 10 and 15, Nowicki-Eldridge said.
Lawmakers also could use the money to provide services to help inmates transition out of prison and back into society through transition houses, substance abuse recovery centers, job training, transportation and other services, said Lida Shepherd with the American Friends Service Committee’s West Virginia Economic Justice Project.
The most common recommendation pitched to legislators Monday was presumptive eligibility. Under presumptive eligibility, inmates automatically are released from prison as soon as they are eligible for parole. Under that philosophy, it would be up to the parole board to determine whether there were any reasons why a person shouldn’t be released from prison.
“I think of presumptive eligibility as really flipping the kind of poor question that the state asks the parole board to ask when they are considering whether they’re going to release someone,” Shepherd said.
“So, under presumptive eligibility, I believe that instead of asking why a person should be released ... it turns that on its head and asks why not.”
Lawmakers in other states have limited this eligibility to nonviolent offenders or limited that eligibility based on the percentage of a term an inmate has served, based on the nature of the crime they committed.
The eligibility has not been extended to people convicted of crimes including murder and certain sexual offenses in other states.
Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials reported that the state parole board grants parole for about two out of every five inmates who have a hearing before them, not including a little more than 600 cases for which the board deferred making a decision in 2019.
In presentations from Shepherd and Lauren Krisai, senior policy analyst for Justice Action Network, other ideas heard by the committee members were requiring the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop parole eligibility case plans at the start of an inmate’s sentence, and to limit crimes for which the parole board can deny someone parole from prison.
It was also suggested that legislators could remove sanctions for technical parole violations — such as missing an appointment with a parole officer or failing to fill out paperwork. The sanctions typically include jail time or fees.
Any changes to laws affecting parole can benefit the system both on the side of the parole board and inmates, Shott said.
“Anecdotally, we’ve heard the parole board is not fully staffed,” Shott said. “They’re not able to timely address the parole hearings as needed, so we’ll be taking a look at parole issues as we move forward.”