Supreme Court creates state jail task force

By Kelly Holleran | Dec 29, 2008


CHARLESTON -- The state Supreme Court has established a seven-person compliance commission charged with the task of creating a long-term plan to address the state's overcrowded jail population.

Although members of the commission do not have a deadline, they are expected to issue a report to the Supreme Court within two years. Possible items within the report could include recommendations on how to alleviate the overcrowding, a recommendation to appoint a special master or recommendations for one or more court orders.

Overcrowding in jails is not a new problem. Nearly 10 years ago, Daniel L. Sims and five of his fellow inmates filed a case known as the Sams v. Kirby case in 1999.

In the suit, Sims and others requested a writ of mandamus to allow their transfer from a regional jail to facilities operated by the Division of Corrections.

They were forced to stay in regional jails because there was a shortage of space in prisons, which are designed for long-term housing. In addition, prisons offer extensive rehabilitation programs.

In response to the prisoners' petition, the court appointed a special master who was responsible for overseeing a long-range plan for the transfer of inmates lodged in regional and county jails who were awaiting transfer to DOC facilities.

Among some suggestions in the long-term plan were recommended plans for completing or expanding various facilities to add more beds into prisons. It also called for changes to sentencing policies and procedures and a transfer of inmates to neighboring states on a contractual basis.

Implementing various options of the plan, though, turned out to be a "dismal failure," an order the court issued in 2005 states.

In fact, the number of prisoners who are waiting to be transferred to DOC facilities has increased from 745 in 1999 to 1,160 in early December, according to the court order.

And it is on course to reach 2,200 in 2012, Jim Rubenstein told legislators earlier this month.

"The result of this overcrowding at the regional level is to force inmates to sleep on the floor on mats," the order states.

The problem will remain unsolved unless a new state prison is built, sentences are reduced by the Legislature or more expansive alternative sanctions are enacted, funded and employed, Rubenstein told the Legislature.

To decrease prisoners, the special master recommended increasing the rate of paroles granted. However, the rate of granting paroles has decreased since 2000, the order states.

The DOC claims it cannot fix the problem on its own and needs the help of the Legislature.

"Correctly identifying the problem as one which requires both legislative involvement in terms of obtaining the necessary resources to fund construction and renovation projects and the involvement of the executive branch as far as policy decisions regarding parole and sentencing issues, the DOC observes that 'unless West Virginia decides to radically alter the consequences for criminal activity, ... additional prison beds are going to have to be made available,'" the order states.

In response to the continuing problems, the court appointed the seven-person commission.

The members will be Circuit Judge Jack Alsop from Braxton, Clay, Gilmer and Webster counties; Circuit Judge Martin J. Gaughan from Brooke, Hancock and Ohio counties; Preston Circuit Judge Lawrance S. Miller Jr.; W. Joseph McCoy, a former corrections commissioner and retired professor at Marshall University and West Virginia Wesleyan; Father Brian O'Donnell, director of the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University; Kanawha County Chief Public Defender George Castelle; and Charleston lawyer Forrest Roles, who was the last special master in the Sams v. Kirby case. Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury will be an ex-officio member.

One full-time employee -– former Southern Regional Jail Administrator Tom Scott -- will serve on the panel and will begin his work Jan. 5. He will have a court order giving him authority to enter all the regional jails and correctional facilities to interview inmates and jail and prison staff about overcrowding, availability of programs and other issues.

Scott's job will be full-time, but may be temporary.

"After the Commission issues its report, his job may be eliminated," a news release states.

Commission members will be paid per diem while Scott will be paid $65,000 per year.

Since they are in need of help from the Legislature and executive branch, the judicial branch will try to work with them to implement changes, said Steve Canterbury, Supreme Court administrator.

"We are going to be as cooperative as possible with the other two branches," he said in a news release. "At the end of the day, we hope to report that there is remarkable progress on the part of the Executive and the Legislature."

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