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EDITORIAL: Jail panel needs focus

July 15, 1998

EDITORIAL: Jail panel needs focus

Members of West Virginia's Regional Jail Authority, saying that they need to have their "act together" will wait until August to decide whether they'll ask the state Supreme Court to ease overcrowding at one of their facilities by releasing some inmates. While they're mulling over what to do, the public ought to be mulling over whether this group is doing its job.

This is the group that built the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg, which opened in 1989, five years after voters approved its construction in a referendum. Just six years later, it was declared too small for the growing inmate population, but, unfortunately, the jail hadn't been designed to allow easy expansion.

The jail authority has also had trouble estimating construction costs, and in one case, revised the estimates of erecting future jails by more than $50 million in a day's time.

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Now Dan Huck, the authority's chairman would like to ease overcrowding at the South Central Regional Jail in Kanawha County by having the state Supreme Court release some inmates.

The request comes after this month's beating death of a 23-year-old inmate there. It's not the first time an inmate has died while in prison, to be sure, but it is the first at this facility attributed officially to overcrowded conditions. It was built to hold 372 inmates, but is now bulging at the seams with 410. The state's five other regional jails are also reporting crowded conditions.

We agree with authority member James Smith, who says that the state needs to be very careful about releasing convicted criminals. But trying to devise alternatives for the high court's review, as some members have proposed, is beyond the scope of the authority's duties.

If inmates need to be released to ease crowding, we'd rather see parole and probation officials write the recommendations, since they'll be the ones doing the follow-ups.

Authority members should concentrate on a plan to keep ahead of the growth in the inmate population, not only through new construction, but by renovating older jails and exploring less-costly ideas like home detention. It's time for this group to redeem itself by moving ahead with its primary mission.

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