Maybe a real story can illustrate the problem. I recently spoke with a woman in Southern West Virginia who had been struggling with substance abuse for years. She wound up serving more than four years for forging a check worth less than $65. Yep, that's around $100,000 for $60 bucks. You do the math.
She described the prison years as "dead time," in which she received no services that might help her get her life back. Fortunately, after release she finally got the treatment she needed and has been drug free.
There has to be a better way.
Fortunately, Gov. Tomblin's bill (HB 2726/SB371) provides for sorting of offenders by the degree of risk they present of reoffending and the degree of need for things like substance abuse treatment. It encourages community-based corrections for low-risk offenders. It aims to reduce recidivism by increased post-release supervision. It reforms the process for parole and probation violations, allowing swift and certain consequences, but reducing unnecessary costs. Overall, it aims to save state taxpayers $140 million (not counting avoiding costs for new prison construction and maintenance). Most importantly, it would reinvest over $25 million in savings in substance abuse treatment.
It's not a perfect bill. I have good friends who are reluctant to support it because it doesn't go far enough to address the problem. I respect their position and agree that much more needs to be done to make West Virginia safer and to ensure that we stop wasting lives and throwing people and communities away.
Still, this is a good first step and the alternative of doing nothing will only make things worse all around. I hope the House of Delegates steps up and seals the deal.
Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee's Economic Justice Project, is a Gazette contributing columnist.