For the third year in a row, the House of Delegates approved a bill to establish a state Sentencing Commission to jumpstart criminal justice reforms.
House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said there hadn’t been enough attention paid to issues in the state’s prisons and jails as he made his third appeal in as many years for the state Senate to consider the proposed law on Wednesday.
Delegates approved House Bill 4004 in a 97-1 vote with no debate. The only person to talk about the bill was Shott, who noted how many times the House approved the measure only for it to be met with crickets in the Senate.
“Among the many challenges facing our state, the reform of our criminal justice system is one of the least publicized,” Shott said. “To keep this in context, we have a system in which we are 20 to 25 percent over capacity, and our prisons, our regional jails are overflowing.”
As the House voted on the bill Wednesday, there were 5,024 people incarcerated in the state’s regional jails, said Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Those jails are equipped with 4,265 bunks, Messina said.
There were 5,303 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons, which have a capacity to house 5,409 people, Messina said.
As for the state’s Community Corrections centers, also called work-release centers, there were 583 people housed statewide in a system equipped to house 589 people, Messina said.
In November, a little more than half the people who were incarcerated in the state’s regional jails were there despite not having been convicted of a crime, Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsy Jividen told the Legislative Joint Judiciary Committee during an interim meeting that month.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, didn’t say whether HB 4004 was a priority for the Senate, only that he was willing to consider the bill once it is introduced there.
Trump generally said he supported criminal justice reforms that include some of the reforms the Sentencing Committee would be asked to consider — bail reform, civil asset forfeiture, fixing “choke points” in the parole system, and issues of mental illness and a person’s competency to stand trial.
If it becomes law, HB 4004 would establish a 13-member committee whose task would be to collect data and other research to establish a better understanding of the state’s criminal sentencing system, with the goal of making reforms.
The committee would include prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement representatives, legislators and a representative for substance abuse addiction and recovery.
Legislative goals, as supported by the committee’s work, would be to ensure prison sentences are appropriate from the relevant crimes while upholding judges’ abilities to use their discretion on a case-by-case basis when handing down sentences.
Wednesday afternoon, Shott said House members would pursue other criminal justice reforms discussed during the Joint Judiciary Committee meeting on Jan. 6, including parole reforms that could release between 1,000 and 1,600 people from incarceration.
During that meeting, Shott said in addition to saving money, parole reform measures would alleviate prison overcrowding and could help with the state’s workforce participation rate.
The estimated savings from parole reforms for the state was $35 million.
The bulk of the state’s jail and prison facilities were constructed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
West Virginia’s prisons house inmates who are serving sentences for felony offenses. The regional jail system houses people who are awaiting trial and those who are serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes and some nonviolent felonies.
In November, Commissioner Jividen told lawmakers there were at least $193 million in unfunded maintenance issues at regional jails, including “incredible” sewage issues that are compounded by the overcrowding in the jails.
In December, the state had to truck tanks of water to the Mount Olive Correctional Complex, in Fayette County, after a water main break left the jail without running water for about a week.
In May 2018, Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials removed inmates from the Anthony Correctional Center, in Greenbrier County, after identifying a substantial mold issue in the facility’s main building. The center was an incarceration facility for men and women between 18 and 25 years old.