CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Increases in pay scales for correctional officers, a one-time bonus for correctional staff and multiple bills to keep non-violent offenders out of West Virginia’s overcrowded jails and prisons are part of a comprehensive corrections package lawmakers are considering.
The Legislature was called into special session Sunday by Gov. Jim Justice to consider 44 bills, including bills to help take the pressure off of the state’s system of 11 prisons, 10 regional jails, 10 juvenile centers and three work-release sites.
The key parts of the corrections package include $25 million in pay enhancements to retain and recruit correctional officers and a bonus for non-uniformed service staff in the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Individual bills in the package would appropriate $11 million for a new pay scale for correctional officers within the Corrections Department, $7 million for correctional officers in the Regional Jail Authority and $2.6 million for correctional officers in the Bureau of Juvenile Services. This new pay scale would increase starting pay for correctional officers.
“I would hope that a new pay package, whatever it may end up being, would attract those individuals back to our facilities,” said corrections Commissioner William Marshall. "I don't know that I'm expecting it to be as good as it was when we had at a 30-year low, but I'm hopeful that it'll start changing.”
According to Marshall, vacancies among correctional officers pre-COVID-19 was around 450-500 vacancies. But the most recent numbers put officer vacancies at around 1,050 vacancies, or a statewide vacancy rate more than 30% with some individual facilities with vacancy rates north of 60%. Marshall said the Corrections Department loses between 12 and 15 officers each month.
“I don't know how much longer we're going to be able to utilize the National Guard, but I don't see that we're going to be able to eliminate them in the very near future,” Marshall said. “Our goal is to do that eventually.”
Justice issued a state of emergency last August because of the correctional officer and staff vacancy crisis. Since then, the National Guard has helped fill vacancies at a cost of more than $20 million. Around 340 members of the guard are in the correctional system. The Division of Natural Resources also has provided staff.
Another bill would provide pay raises for critical-level vacancies and provide funding for incentives to fill high-vacancy areas in prisons and jails. Another bill would appropriate $2.9 million for a one-time retainment bonus for non-uniformed service employees in the Corrections Department beginning in October.
“Something has to be done, and yeah, it's not going to be a long-term ultimate solution, but it's a good first step,” said House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha. “We have to do something now. We can't afford to wait anymore.”
Some lawmakers raised concerns about not also offering service staff increases in starting pay. According to sources, corrections staff are not separate from other support staff positions within the state’s Division of Personnel, requiring a change in State Code to make them separate from similar job classifications. While some lawmakers expect to fix this issue in next year’s legislative session, some think that will be too late.
“I’m in favor of this bill as it is right now, but I don't think it goes far enough,” said Del. Michael Hite, R-Berkeley. “This is not going to retain the employees like everybody hopes it will. I think in October we are going to have an exodus. I think people are going to be irritated with not being able to get a raise. They don't want it pulled off or postponed until the next session.”
“I am going to support this piece of legislation, and I do have the same concerns as my colleague just raised,” said House Finance Committee Vice Chairman John Hardy, R-Berkeley. “I do think that we would've been in a much better position if we could have done a two-part…I am concerned that this is going to have a divide and a split between our uniformed and our non-uniform, but I am going to support this.”
Other bills considered include requiring larger cities to pay for per diem jail fees for those incarcerated up to five days that could have had their cases heard in municipal court; defining bail and requiring the least restrictive standard be used when defendants select a method to secure release; an e-reminder system to let defendants know when their court dates are; creation of a coordinated transportation system for court appearances; and codifying policies for equal access to health care.
The Senate Judiciary Committee discussed a bill Monday afternoon ensuring easy access to temporary identification cards for those leaving the corrections system. These cards are already offered free of charge, but the bill would codify that, as well as make the identification cards valid for 180 days.
Brad Douglas, executive officer for the Corrections Department, said it’s already a current program offered for years.
“We have inmates who have been in a while. They didn’t have a drivers’ license when they came in, we can’t confirm they got one or it expired,” Douglass said. “When they come out and establish themselves as a functioning citizen…one of the steps to doing that is going to the bank and getting a checking account, going to the DMV and getting their actual license if they want to drive, getting a job. This I.D., being an official state-issued I.D., allows them to do that.”