CHARLESTON (AP) — Nearly 500 violent West Virginia criminals, including 65 convicted of homicide and more than 120 sentenced for felony sex offenses, remained in the state’s regional jails last month because the prisons are at capacity, according to figures shown Monday to legislators.
The network of 10 jails together had 4,807 inmates as of last week, 2,023 more than they were designed to hold. The lack of prison space figures prominently in this crowding crisis. The jails housed 1,789 convicted felons in May — the figure has since grown — who should be in prison serving their sentences. The May figure included 481 inmates — nearly 27 percent of the felon backlog — convicted of violent crimes.
The 170 felony sex offenders in jails include 124 sentenced for offenses involving force, a House-Senate oversight committee learned at a meeting Monday. Another 148 inmates should be in prison for assault-related crimes, while 14 stand convicted of kidnapping or abduction.
“I think we are marginally more dangerous and we’re certainly not equipped in all cases to house the population that we have now,” acting regional jails chief Joe DeLong told the lawmakers.
The risks include attacks both on corrections officers and inmates, DeLong said. It’s become much more difficult, for instance, to separate certain sex offenders from other inmates who may target them, DeLong said.
He mentioned one case in which such a sex offender ended up housed with a mix of other inmates.
“They were watching television, and this sex offender’s crime came across the TV,” DeLong said. “Before our officers were able to respond, we had a very violent incident occur.”
The jails also lack the long-term treatment, training and educational programs that prison-sentenced inmates need. West Virginia ranks fourth among the states for the percentage of jail inmates who should instead be in prison, according to a newly launched study of the crowding crisis. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments, recently agreed to scrutinize the system and develop policy options with a working group of state leaders.
The project has helped more than a dozen other states, including neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania. The project will conduct its study alongside the ongoing review by the legislative interim committee.
The study’s initial figures show that around one-fourth of all West Virginia inmates sentenced to Division of Corrections facilities instead remain in jails, compared to 5.2 percent nationwide. Committee Co-Chair William Laird, D-Fayette, said the number of violent felons waiting for prison space indicates that West Virginia lacks a policy making it a priority to transfer them first.
“I previously ran a jail, believe it or not. I was often more worried about who I had in jail, rather than how many I had in jail,” said Laird, a state senator and former county sheriff.
The state’s regional jails replaced county-run facilities. Laird said Kentucky, which ranks third for felons in jail, also has rules that aimed to ensure their backlog does not include violent offenders.
“I think we have the tools to do that,” Laird said. “I’m just concerned about the continuing balancing act.”