CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Building a new prison in West Virginia is an absolute last resort, state officials said Thursday, but they did not rule it out as a possible remedy for the state's overcrowded prison system.
Jim Rubinstein, state corrections commissioner, said West Virginia faces a crisis when it comes to prison overcrowding. Every bed is filled, and there are 1,700 to 1,800 prisoners being housed in regional jails that are meant for shorter-term inmates who committed lesser crimes.
The state's prison population is growing faster than anywhere else in the nation and a new prison is estimated to cost between $150 and 200 million, with annual operating costs of $30 million.
A bill to address prison overcrowding fell apart on the last day of last year's legislative session because of Republican opposition. That bill would have added beds to a supervised drug-treatment program and allowed judges to reduce or divert sentences for some drug offenders and parole and probation violators.
Corrections officials and lawmakers have debated the problem for decades, but those who spoke at The Associated Press' annual Legislative Lookahead in South Charleston all agreed that prison crowding must be addressed.
"Growing prison population has reached a point where something has to be done this year,'' Rubinstein said.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democratic House and Senate leaders and Sen. Corey Palumbo, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, all endorsed a recent study that proposed releasing prisoners six months early with supervision.
"That's a good trade off to make,'' said Palumbo, D-Kanawha. "These are people who are getting out anyway.''
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, agreed with supervised release but was hesitant about shortened sentences.
"We recognize there is a fiscal issue but we don't want to just open the gates and let people who have been convicted and are serving a sentence be let out,'' Lane said. "We think a furlough type program is dangerous.''