CHARLESTON, W.Va. - State corrections commissioner Jim Rubenstein said West Virginia's prison system is "boiling over" and requires immediate action from state lawmakers.
"As far as I'm concerned, we're at a crisis stage right now," he said.
Speaking at a legislative forum hosted by the Associated Press on Thursday morning, Rubenstein said on any given day all 5,400 state prison beds are filled and about 1,800 inmates who should be in state facilities are held in regional jails.
Joe DeLong, the state's regional jails director, said jails also are overcrowded, but that is directly related to overcrowding in prisons.
If the state could keep all its prisoners in prison instead of using jails for its overflow, he said, the jails no longer would be overcrowded.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Thursday that prison reform would be one of his administration's main focuses during the upcoming legislative session. He will deliver his State of the State Speech to lawmakers on Wednesday, and the 60-day session will get under way.
Last month, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments, released its recommendations for overhauling West Virginia's prison system.
The work group estimated its proposals would save West Virginia $116.3 million in operational costs between now and 2018, mostly by avoiding the construction of a new prison.
The group's recommendations focused mainly on increasing supervision of offenders once they leave the criminal justice system and reducing substance abuse.
Tomblin said last week he would support the Justice Reinvestment Initiative recommendations.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, House and Senate members from both parties agreed the state needs to tackle its prison overcrowding problems, but they differ on how to accomplish that goal.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he and other senators believe the state should establish a secure substance abuse treatment facility.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, said it would cost between $20 million and $25 million to build such a facility but the state needs to find the money.
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, said it would be cheaper to monitor ex-inmates in the community and require them to regularly check into treatment programs than to send them to a secure treatment facility. He agreed, however, that the state needs to increase availability of drug treatment programs.
"The only drug treatment available to a sentencing judge is to incarcerate that defendant," he said. "That's a very costly way to provide drug rehab to somebody."
Palumbo also suggested some offenders could be let out of jail six months early but be supervised after their release. He said studies have shown that prisoners who are supervised after returning to society are much less likely to return to prison.