Emergency continues over jails staffing, but financial solution remains elusive

Gov. Jim Justice called a state of emergency over staffing in West Virginia jails in August and called for better pay during his State of the State address in January.

Yet the regular legislative session ended without improvement in pay for corrections officers beyond the across-the-board raises that other state workers are to receive.

Asked about next steps today, the governor said he still needs time to consider what to do. He noted that legislation reflecting more money specifically for corrections officers ran aground during the regular session.

Jim Justice

“Let’s be really fair,” Justice said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” “The last session prior to this one, we put up an agency bill. Shot down. This session we put up my bill. Shot down. In all fairness, we have a real problem with correctional officers. We need locality pay. We blew it up.

“But from my standpoint, the only thing I can hope to do is wait a couple of months, maybe develop another plan, maybe try to make another run at it in special session. But I have no idea why we keep blowing this stuff up.”

The House jails committee proposed a $10,000 across-the-board pay raise for corrections officers. That bill also included a $6,000 one-time incentive. House Bill 2879 was advanced by that committee on Jan. 30 but went no farther.

A fiscal note estimated the cost could be $29 million in fiscal 2024 and $47.5 million upon full implementation. The estimate included an assumption of a 50 percent hiring increase.

A separate bill, with the policies the governor was describing, would have provided additional pay for corrections officers in areas with high economic competition. Senate Bill 464,which would have provided additional locality pay of up to $10,000 a year in addition to the officer’s salary. was advanced by the Senate Government Organization Committee, on Feb. 24, but made no more progress.

A fiscal note estimated the cost of applying the extra money to facilities where vacancies exceed 40 percent would be about $6.7 million.

In this year’s State of the State address, Justice pleaded with lawmakers to boost pay for corrections officers, particularly in border counties where competition for workers is intense.

Today, he echoed that.

“We have got to have the flexibility to do some level of stipend or whatever to be able to handle this — unless we want to just have our National Guard in our prisons forever more, but that’s not much of a fix and very expensive on top of that.”

Craig Blair

Senate President Craig Blair today said priorities like pay for corrections officers were the kind of balance that senators were trying to point to early in the session as they expressed caution about a steep income tax cut. Still, senators wound up backing a broad-based tax cut amounting to more than $750 million.

“That’s my argument about going too deep. Remember, the House wanted to do almost one and a half billion dollars in tax cuts. You cannot do that and still be able to do the things that you need to do in the state, so that’s why the Senate was so hard-core on not doing that,” Blair, R-Berkeley, said today on “Talkline.”

“Do we need to do more with Corrections? Yes. But you know what we need to do more so? That is, have less people in our corrections facilities. We need to make it so you’re not lodging these people. You need to be able to make it so you’ve got gainful employment and they’re not in there on drug crimes. These are the things that we’re trying to do systemically to help with this, but we’ve still got a ways to go.”

Lawmakers voted last week to extend the emergency declaration for the corrections system.

David Kelly

Just before that vote was taken in the House of Delegates, Delegate David Kelly, chairman of the House’s jails committee, said it’s time to help corrections officers financially.

“When I come in on Sunday nights, the light above the dome is still on,” Kelly, R-Tyler. “That tells us we’re in a state of emergency. And I applaud the governor for putting us there. I applaud him for knowing we have a real problem in our jails and prisons. I applaud him for calling the Guard up to try to fill the gap.

“But ladies and gentlemen we all know in this House that to continue that indefinitely is not sustainable.”

Kelly said the cost of backstopping the jails system with National Guard personnel is $17 million to $20 million this year. And much more money will have to be dedicated to overtime costs.

Meanwhile, he cited a 33 percent vacancy rate and said, “Our officers are saying ‘I can’t do this any more.’”

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