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Justice praises bill on prison overcrowding

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alternative sentencing programs, including community corrections and drug courts, have kept more than 2,500 West Virginians out of state prisons, not only providing millions in cost savings, but helping alleviate the need to build new prisons, Chief Justice Brent Benjamin said Wednesday.

Noting that the cost of building a 1,500-bed medium-security prison would run between $200 million and $250 million, Benjamin said, "We would need possibly two of those without community corrections and drug courts."

Benjamin said he is particularly proud of the court's work establishing drug courts, which emphasize substance abuse treatment and intensive supervision.

Drug offenders sent to prison have a 75 percent to 80 percent recidivism rate, while drug court graduates have a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent, he said.

"The graduates gain self-respect and self-responsibility," Benjamin said. "They get jobs. They do community service ... they become taxpayers."

Benjamin told the Senate Finance Committee he is optimistic the governor's justice reinvestment legislation will further help reduce overcrowding in state prisons and regional jails.

He presented the Supreme Court's $125.67 million 2013-14 budget to the committee, but said the final budget amount may be tweaked as the session goes on in anticipation of passage of the governor's initiatives.

Benjamin stressed that the budget covers the entire judicial system in the state, from the Supreme Court to circuit courts, family courts, magistrate courts, and drug courts and mental health courts, with a total of about 1,300 employees.

He said that's the third-lowest budget of any state court system in the U.S., with about 90 percent of the budget going for salaries and benefits for judges and staff.

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


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