BLUEFIELD — Allowing prisoners who serve their time out of jail as soon as feasible and keeping out those who should not be there are two avenues to tackle jail overcrowding in the state, and reduce expenses for counties.
As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Del. John Shott (R-Mercer County) is pushing these improvements to the system and has been instrumental in implementing other ways to solve the problem of overcrowding and the expense to counties of sending prisoners to regional jails.
“We are 25 percent over capacity in the facilities we built to accommodate our prison population,” he told a crowd Friday at the annual Legislative Point of View Breakfast.
While people are incarcerated they are “not available to work” and create an “immense burden on our county commissions” to pay to house prisoners at the regional jails.
“That indirectly affects each of you,” he said. “The money that goes to support that cost from the county commission is not available to provide law enforcement services, to find prospects for potential economic development clients …it is an enormous drain.”
Shott said legislators are addressing the problem in a lot of different ways, but making sure dangerous people are in jail remains a priority.
“We want to be sure that the people who ought to go to prison go to prison,” he said.
Shott said it’s often heard that we want to lock up people “we are afraid of” (violent/dangerous offenders) and find a way to handle people “we are just mad at” (non-violent offenders) without sending them to jail.
“Unfortunately, they all are in jail now,” he said.
The result is a high price tag for taxpayers.
Mercer County commissioners said at last month’s commission meeting that the county’s recent monthly jail bills have been from $114,000 to about $145,000. The cost per day to house a prisoner at Southern Regional Jail is $48.25, Shott said.
Putting people in prison is also a financial burden for the state.
Those years when the state had to cut funding for education, he said, money had to be increased for prisons.
Shott, who is retiring and will not seek reelection to the House after the 2020 session, wants to try to avoid sending those non-violent offenders to jail in the first place, he said, adding that magistrates were often hesitating to release them on a personal recognizance (PR) bond because they don’t want to appear to be “soft” on crime and set a higher bond.
The result often was that the offender had no money and could not post a bond, ending up in jail to await court proceedings, with taxpayers picking up the tab.
Legislation has been passed to change that, he said, requiring magistrates to use lower or PR bonds and release those charged with non-violent misdemeanor crimes who pose no threat to themselves or others.
“A lot of these people do not need to be in jail,” he said. “They haven’t been convicted of anything. The only thing the magistrate should be concerned about is whether they will show up for court, or be a threat to themselves or other people. It’s not a time to punish these people.”
Shott said other measures have been taken as well to reduce the jail population, including the day report center, drug court and veterans court.
These are supervisory programs that allows an offender to be free yet subject to oversight and often treatment for an addiction.
Legislators are also working on ways for those who have served time and released to find meaningful employment by making it easier for them to obtain a new driver’s license (if it has expired), and an ID card., he added.
The driver’s license issue is a “major problem,” he said, because many who are released have expired licenses or suspended because they can’t pay the court cost.
They are then left with no means of transportation to get to and from a job, although it had nothing to do with their driving record.
“We are looking at how to deal with that,” he said.
Shott said he was also surprised to learn about the lack of an identification when they are released, which is required to apply for a job and housing and other services. That problem was taken care of last year by legislators.
The point is, he said, all of these things can limit a person’s ability to go to work.
One issue with releasing those who are ready is the parole board.
“We have a parole board we can’t seem to staff,” he said, adding that’s not a “glamorous” job and does require time and travel. “As a result, we have people eligible for parole sitting in prison who may have taken some classes and obtain skills and may be able to move into the job market and provide for their families and be productive members of society, but they can’t get a review by the parole board.”
Shott said one solution being examined is to either eliminate the parole board or at least limit its function to deal with the most serious crimes.
The push to lower the jail population, and save counties money, will continue in the upcoming legislative session, he said. That session starts Jan. 8.
Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com