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County officials want input on early inmate release

PARKERSBURG — The sheriff and prosecuting attorney of Wood County both want to be consulted before any people are released early from jail because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plans are being formulated at the state and federal level that could release non-violent offenders from jail early as concerns grow that the prisons could become potential hotspots for the virus to spread. Officials are looking at relieving overcrowding conditions.

Sheriff Steve Stephens and Wood County Prosecutor Pat Lefebure told the Wood County Commission on Monday they wanted a say in who might be released and who should remain incarcerated.

”Our concern would be over a ‘blanket release,”’ Lefebure said. ”We want to make sure there is some oversight.”

For inmates awaiting trial, he wants the local judges, prosecutors and other officials who have dealt with these people to have a say in what happens as opposed to someone saying they are releasing a certain number at a certain time.

”The prison population is certainly at risk, but I don’t see that we need a blanket release of individuals. I think we would be going down a road where we would not be looking at the public safety issues.”

Lefebure said he has not gotten a lot of answers about what factors state prison officials would be looking at to do these releases.

Commission Jimmy Colombo previously served on the state parole board.

Prisoners have records in prison that detail problems they may have caused, if they went to classes and other indicators of behavior. He also felt that the victims of crime also should be allowed to voice their concern before any release is considered.

Before being released on parole, an inmate would have to have a “home plan” covering where they were going and doing after release, Colombo said.

Stephens said he has not seen any indication of that in what is being discussed right now.

Officials said some candidates could be people who are coming up for parole in the next couple of months who have their paperwork in order to be released sooner.

County Commission President Blair Couch has been receiving correspondence from other commissions around the state.

Officials in Kanawha County are worried about a mass release could involve murders and sex offenders or people above 55-years-old, he said.

Lefebure said he is not sure what is being looked at in determining who is being looked at to be released.

”I think that would be better done at the local level,” he said.

Colombo said a murderer would have to be incarcerated for over 17 years before they would even go before a parole board. Sex offenders also have a lengthy review process before parole would be considered.

Wood County Courts Coordinator Pam Brust said a bill was already passed in the Legislature that would release non-violent offenders on personal recognizance bonds starting this summer. Officials believe that could be accelerated to help now.

Lefebure said they are already working with the Public Defender’s Office on potential inmates who might qualify for an early release following a request from the state Supreme Court a couple weeks ago. Many of the people they are considering are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, such as forgery.

”We have agreed to some and not agreed to others,” he said.

Brust said some people could be incarcerated for a non-violent offense, but she has seen some who have a long rap sheet of other offenses, sometimes violent and sometimes drug related, that also needs to be considered before any possible release.

”Someone may be looking at what they did ‘this time,”’ she said. ”There is more to the story.”

Colombo also added that some people have special requirements as a condition of their release, like sex offenders who are not permitted to have kids in a home with them.

Officials also were worried about domestic violence offenders who might be released and would have to go back to the house and the people they were abusing and violent toward.

Stephens, as the president of the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, sent a letter to Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy about a possible release of all pre-trial detainees from the state jails.

”The WVSA would adamantly oppose such action and urge extreme caution in considering release of those who have committed serious and dangerous crimes,” he wrote. ”…if a court has determined a person need be incarcerated based upon each case and each individual set of facts, that is a safer alternative than a blanket release of some of society’s most dangerous criminals.”

He said local judges and prosecutors should be examining the issue locally, on a case by case basis. The current situation already has law-enforcement pushed to the limits.

Crimes continue to be committed and some people feel the emergency means that certain laws will not be enforced as strictly and they can “commit any act they see fit.”

”Any blanket release, regardless of crime, without support services or without a plan for release is ill advised,” Stephens wrote.

Lefebure said the prosecutor’s association sent a similar letter touching on many of the same points.

Couch said they don’t want the jails to be overcrowded during this period, but any releases needed to be select.

Officials said it should be people in for non-violent offenses and who they themselves have not shown a tendency for violent behavior. Also, local officials need to have a say in the process.

”We are all in agreement that the local jurisdiction should be consulted prior to releasing someone back into the community,” Couch said. ”The position of the commission is to support our sheriff, emergency services and prosecuting attorney and their desire to ensure our community does not get a lot of violent sex offenders that could be released due to an epidemic. We do not support any plan that calls for the mass release of prisoners. Any plan would have to be looked at case-by-case.”

The commission also will draft a letter to Sandy.

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