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Prison diversion has to work, court official says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia has a great financial incentive to make sure the Justice Reinvestment Act, the 2013 legislation geared at reducing prison overcrowding, succeeds, Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury told the Senate Finance Committee Monday.

"If we had to build another medium-security prison, it would cost $250 million," Canterbury said. "We have really high stakes for the success of Justice Reinvestment."

In the first six months since its enactment, the legislation seems to be working, with about a 275-inmate reduction in the state Division of Corrections population, down to about 6,800 prisoners, he said.

Canterbury attributed that decline to circuit judges following the mandates of Justice Reinvestment at sentencing.

"More people are being placed in drug courts or on probation," he said. "That's exactly what we hoped for."

Currently, there are 21 drug courts in 33 counties, with a mandate in the law to have courts in all 55 counties by July 2016.

Drug courts, which emphasize community corrections and rehabilitation, are much less expensive than prison -- about $7,100 a year per participant, compared to $25,000 a year per inmate, Canterbury said.

More importantly, initial results are showing a 9 percent recidivism rate for participants.

"So far, so good. Nationally, the recidivism rate is 25 percent," he said.

Nationally, drug offenders sentenced to prison have a 75 percent recidivism rate, Canterbury said.

"If you put them in prison, they're going to be exposed to offenders who are going to give them some very bad ideas," he noted.

If all participants in adult and juvenile drug courts were placed in prison or juvenile facilities, it would cost the state an additional $20 million a year in incarceration costs, he said.

The Supreme Court's 2014-15 budget request of $131.8 million is an increase of about $10.3 million over the current budget, Canterbury said.

About half the increase is to cover costs of expanding drug courts and hiring 20 new probation officers, while half is for costs of setting up a statewide computer e-filing network for circuit courts, he said.

Also, he said that if the Legislature approves a $504 across-the-board pay raise for state employees, Canterbury said the Supreme Court will need an additional $702,346 to give the same raise to all non-elected judicial branch employees.

He said people complain about the size of the Supreme Court budget, not understanding that budget covers the entire judicial branch statewide.

"They don't understand that when we say 'court,' we mean every single part of it. We mean magistrates. We mean family courts. We mean circuit courts," he said.

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


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