House of Delegates candidates discussed the problem of prison overcrowding during The Inter-Mountain's candidate forum Thursday evening at Elkins High School.
All the candidates on the ballot seeking the two District 43 seats took part in the forum, including Democrats Denise L. Campbell, an incumbent of Elkins; incumbent Bill Hartman, of Elkins; and Phil Isner of Elkins; as well as Republican Donna Auvil, of Elkins.
Two of the five candidates for the 44th District seat participated, including Republicans Duane Borchers Sr., of Craigsville; and Robert Karnes, of Buckhannon. Democrats Sue Blake Anderson, of Craigsville; Joe Talbott, of Webster Springs; and Dana L. Lynch, of Webster Springs, were not able to attend.
Moderator Dr. David Turner asked the candidates questions prepared by the Inter-Mountain staff. The first question was, "What ideas do you have to solve the problem of prison overcrowding?"
"We want our sheriff's departments and our magistrates to be tough on substance abuse. However, our prisons are full now," Campbell said.
"I think we need to look at the level of the crime. Crimes like murder, and crimes against children and crimes against senior citizens are crimes we need to take seriously," Campbell said. "Those people need to be behind bars. ... We all need to work together to talk about the issues and work on the solutions."
Hartman said, "I recently attended the opening of a halfway house in Huttonsville. It's for the inmates who are suitable to work outside the prison, which at Huttonsville now there are very few of. They want to keep those people separated from the general population (of the prison).
"I think education is needed about drug abuse," Hartman said. "We just can't lock everybody up who has a violation, we don't have the capacity. We need education and rehabilitation, and until we have that I don't think we're going to solve the prison overcrowding problem."
Isner also focused on the drug situation. "Far and away, our biggest problem has to do with drugs and drug-related crimes, whether that be the actual sale of drugs or just a crime that was motivated by someone being under the influence at the time," he said.
"We have here in Randolph County an absolutely awesome Community Corrections program ... as an alternative to incarceration for first-time offenders and folks that need an opportunity to try to get off drugs," Isner said. "It motivates folks to go out and get a job. Very few people, in my almost 10 years of practicing law, have I ever seen stop drugs because of being incarcerated or because of fear of incarceration. I have, however, seen a number of success stories from people who were given an opportunity through one of these programs."
Auvil said she worried that prison overcrowding could lead the state to become soft on crime. "There needs to be more money sent to schools for drug education so that students will know what will happen once they get on drugs," she said.
"I have to say, I don't agree with just opening the doors of the prison and just letting people go," Auvil said. "I believe we need to be tough on people who do not abide by the law. I think we need to have more people in law enforcement and more funding toward police departments and people who are public servants."
Borchers offered a different perspective. "I'm not a policeman so I can't address drug problems, but what I can do is provide some money, some tax-free money," he said. "As we know, West Virginia is the second poorest state in the country. ... I would like to sponsor legislation for a tax-free zone for inventors and copyright holders.
"If an inventor comes to West Virginia, not Texas, he's going to put some people to work," Borchers said. "Those employees are going to pay taxes. This tax-free zone will cost us nothing, but we will reap the rewards in tax dollars, and we'll give our children jobs."
Karnes said, "You have to look at it honestly and say some people don't represent a danger to other people, and some do. People who represent a danger to folks around them need to be in prison. We need to look at home confinement and probation and what alternatives there may be, for how to deal with nonviolent offenders.
"It's really an education problem," Karnes said. "Seventy-five percent of the prisoners in our prison system in West Virginia do not have a high school diploma. Over half of the people who are on social services do not have a high school diploma. Over half of the people who use drugs do not have a high school diploma. ... If we can just get people graduating from school, a lot of this problem goes away."