WINFIELD, W.Va. -- Before West Virginia's prison overcrowding bill passed in April, Mark Sorsaia and other prosecuting attorneys from around the state gathered in Charleston to discuss the implications of the law.
Sorsaia, Putnam County's prosecutor, said that in the course of debating the bill, several people came to a conclusion: "We should be putting people in jail that we're afraid of, not the ones that we're mad at."
For Sorsaia, that answer wasn't sufficient.
"I said, 'There's a third category. We have the people we're afraid of, who are going to jail, we have the people we're mad at, that we should consider whether they need to go to jail and whether that's in society's best interest, but there's a third group. This is the group that's driving prison overcrowding and skyrocketing jail costs. It is the people we are putting in jail and prison because, if we don't, they're going to kill themselves.'
"It's an entirely new dynamic of this business."
The number of felony prosecutions in Putnam County has risen roughly 20 percent since 2010, and the county's juvenile prosecutions are up 25 percent, Sorsaia said. Those numbers have contributed to an increase in the "jail bill," the taxpayer funds allocated to the criminal justice system for Putnam County. The bill, too, has risen steadily over the past three years -- from $1.1 million two years ago to $1.4 million last year to $1.7 million now.
The rise in the jail bill and arrests in the county are partly the result of what Sorsaia calls a "pandemic of addiction" -- a steady rise in the number of drug-related offenses in the county and across the state.
"Putnam County is not really any different than any other county, but we have been hit hard with the problem of addiction," he said. "My frustration as a prosecutor is that it's being considered a criminal justice problem, but quite frankly, the criminal justice system is really a victim of the overall problem of addiction."
Sorsaia said many of the nonviolent crimes he sees -- including larceny, burglary and forgery -- are connected to addicts trying to feed their addiction, and many times, the only way to break the cycle is a conviction.
"With addiction, it's a multi-faceted thing because, not only are they engaging in crime, but they're destroying their lives," he said. "They're destroying their health, and they're on this frenzy of drug abuse, and you see them killing themselves. It's the 20-year-old kid who's living under a bridge, dealing with drug dealers and breaking into outbuildings and stealing weed eaters for their next fix."
When the son of one of Sorsaia's friends tested positive for meth and was brought before him, he said calling the father felt more like giving a medical prognosis than talking about possible felony charges.
"I called him and I said, 'I'm going to talk to you as a father and not as a prosecutor. Your son is testing positive for methamphetamine. He has an addiction. This is not about him going to jail, this is not about him being a convicted felon. This is about whether or not your son is going to live,'" Sorsaia said.
Putnam County has instituted a number of diversion programs geared toward rehabilitating offenders, including home confinement and the Day Report program. There was one full-time employee in charge of diversion programs when Sorsaia began prosecuting there in the 1980s. Today, there are 15 full-time employees in the Winfield area who are solely dedicated to managing these programs.