Sometimes you might get an impression that West Virginia is the world capital of meth labs, painkiller addicts, crack dealers, pill-mill doctors and unemployable dopeheads. Local TV news, which spotlights shoot-em-ups and other violence, presents a nightly array of scroungy-looking arrestees and tells of home invasions by pill-grabbers. Documentary films like "Oxyana" show the hopelessness of West Virginia's drug abusers.
This coverage over-emphasizes the problem -- but it's nonetheless true that thousands of young people wreck their lives by sinking into dope. Promising futures are destroyed by joblessness and criminal records.
That's why the state's new drug courts are a blessing, helping offenders turn their lives around and become productive adults.
The courts, which have spread nationwide, give judges an option. Instead of throwing addicts into cells or releasing them unsupervised on dope-polluted streets, judges can sentence them to appear at day-report centers where they are constantly monitored for narcotic usage. They get counseling, job-training, group sessions and other help. Those who can't meet tough requirements risk being sent to prison.
Offenders who finally graduate from this plan usually don't return to drug crime. Their recidivism rate is around 10 percent, compared to about 80 percent for other drug suspects.
Drug courts save taxpayers a bundle. It costs perhaps $7,000 a year to monitor an offender through a drug court, but about $24,000 to keep one in a prison cell.
This process is a commendable step toward treating addiction as a health menace instead of a crime.
Kanawha County's first drug court was launched in 2009, and a juvenile court followed in 2012. Gradually, the plan spread to cover 30 counties. Gov. Tomblin's cure for prison overcrowding, passed this year, requires every county to have a drug court by 2016.
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, called the program "wildly successful." State Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury said the operation saves foolish young people who "don't have a lick of sense" and grab any mind-altering narcotic they can find.
Chief Justice Brent Benjamin called drug courts "a win-win situation.... What I've been able to see are entire families turned around." While helping dedicate Kanawha's juvenile drug court, Benjamin noted that Logan County must pay $100,000 a year to handle five drug court enrollees -- but the cost would be $600,000 if they were prosecuted through other justice channels.
Best of all, diverting thousands of young drug offenders into these courts will help spare West Virginians the $200 million cost of building another large state prison.
Saving people always is preferable to locking them in steel cages, and saving taxpayer money is an added bonus.