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New study: Fix W.Va. prisons this way

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A nonpartisan panel that has been studying West Virginia's prison overcrowding problems for the past year has submitted recommendations its members believe could reduce the prison population and save the state more than $100 million by 2018.

The Justice Center of the Council of State Governments presented its report to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Tuesday, recommending a three-prong approach to alleviate prison overcrowding:

  • Expand community-based substance abuse treatment programs.
  • Require post-release supervision of all inmates, including those who have maxed out their sentences and are not placed on parole upon release.
  • Improve community-based supervision of inmates on probation or parole, including expanding day report center programs.

"I think the policy framework that was released today helps strengthen all parts of the system to improve outcomes," said Marc Pelka, policy analyst for the Justice Center.

The center's report estimates that if the recommendations are adopted, West Virginia's inmate population will drop from the current 7,531 to 7,418 by 2018. That would amount to an overall savings of $140 million in operating costs over that period, compared to a projected growth of the prison population to 8,893 by 2018 if no changes are made.

The report calls for reinvesting about $5.5 million a year of the savings into programs to assist probationers and parolees, including community-based substance abuse treatment programs.

Among the factors contributing to prison overcrowding, outlined in the report:

  • The rate of persons being sentenced to prison increased 20 percent between 2005 and 2011, with more than half of the convictions for nonviolent offenses. Only 24 percent of new inmates committed violent crimes.
  • Nearly 30 percent of inmates released from prison are incarcerated again within three years. Of those, more than half go back to prison for committing technical parole or probation violations.

"Eighty percent of these cases involved use of drugs or alcohol," Pelka said.

The report recommends short jail terms as an alternative to parole or probation revocations for offenders who commit technical violations.

  • Insufficient risk/need assessments to determine which inmates are the best candidates for community sentencing, probation or parole. Those assessments are not regularly available to circuit judges at the time of sentencing or to probation officers to help determine needed levels of supervision.

Pelka said he is hopeful the Legislature will act on the Justice Center's recommendations during the 2013 legislative session, and said representatives will return to Charleston when the session begins next month.

"Part of these recommendations will require legislative action, and a number of others will require administrative action," he said.

The West Virginia Supreme Court on Tuesday acted immediately on one of the recommendations, mandating that all convicted felons undergo a risk/needs assessment, and that the results of the assessments be provided to judges before sentencing.

Steve Canterbury, the court's administrative director, said it makes sense to provide that information to judges when they're making sentencing decisions.

Canterbury lauded the Justice Center's recommendations, particularly to expand substance abuse treatment programs for those released from prison.

"Right now, zero dollars are being spent on programs that are focused on probationers and parolees," he said. "We need to expand drug rehabilitation programs in West Virginia that are geared to this population."

If West Virginia is unable to get a handle on its growing inmate population, the state soon will need to build a new prison -- at a cost in excess of $200 million, the Justice Center concluded.

"I know you cannot build your way out of this," Canterbury said. "You must have systemic change."

Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, co-chairman of a legislative interim committee on Regional Jails and Corrections, said he is encouraged by the recommendations.

"It sounds like they're very logical and very cost-effective," Perry said. "They seem very rational, and they sound as if they can be implemented without too much resistance."

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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