Ironically, a more promising solution was arrived at more than 10 years ago as a result of a West Virginia Supreme Court decision which created a longterm plan for dealing with overcrowding and which was agreed to by the DOC and the Regional Jail Authority.
The Supreme Court ordered the creation of a plan in a 2000 ruling in the State ex rel Sams v. Kirby case, which at the time dealt with a much less severe jail backlog of 850. Had the plan been fully implemented, the problem would have been permanently eliminated by 2007. Instead, it has grown much worse.
Some aspects of the plan included granting extra good time for certain offenders. Specifically, it called for the DOC to "identify those prisoners who, through their work records, educational accomplishments, and good conduct qualify for recommendations of extra good time, thereby reducing the amount of time left to serve for prisoners whose conduct warrants it."
It also called for the creation of special work or education programs to allow appropriate inmates to earn extra good time. In addition, it called for the division to identify low-risk prisoners "who, through years of good conduct and successful completion of rehabilitative programs, are appropriate candidates for commutation, or shortening of their sentences."
Other common sense elements of the plan were reviewing the sentences of older inmates who no longer constituted a threat to public safety and removing harsh and restrictive parole practices. West Virginia's rate of granting parole to eligible inmates dropped from 65.9 percent in 1990 to 28.3 percent in 2002. Last year, the Justice Center of the Council for State Governments estimated the effective parole rate to be 33 percent.
In the years since this plan was issued, significant progress has been made in risk and needs assessments of offenders, which should simplify the implementation of the plan.
Sometimes in West Virginia we are pretty good at coming up with solutions but not so much on making them happen.
I have profound respect for the people charged with the difficult job of running West Virginia's corrections system. In this case, however, the path laid out by the Supreme Court's long-term plan seems more promising to me than the Trojan horse of private for-profit prisons.
Wilson is director of the American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project and a Gazette contributing columnist.