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Drug abuse treatment key in prison debate

Feb. 15, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

CHARLESTON -- State lawmakers representing Cabell and Wayne counties were hoping to hear more about easing prison overcrowding and strengthening substance abuse treatment programs during Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's State of the State address, but they remain confident the problems will be addressed during this year's legislative session.

"We're losing a generation if we don't do something this year," Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said. "If we are going to address jail overcrowding, we've got to address (substance abuse). Hit the heart of it, which is substance abuse."

Tomblin did not unveil any specific legislation to deal with prison overcrowding or substance abuse treatment during his address Wednesday. However, he stressed that now is the time to act.

Most of Tomblin's comments about the issues focused on a report the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments released in January. The governor commissioned the report, which was funded by the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance.

"The Council of State Governments has succeeded in increasing public safety and reducing recidivism in states like Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio," Tomblin said. "I asked them to help me construct a plan -- keeping public safety as our No. 1 priority. What we learned was simple: Substance abuse is a huge part of prison overcrowding, and the high re-offending rate intensifies the problem."

Absent any changes, West Virginia's prison population will increase 24 percent over the next five years. Division of Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein echoed those concerns last week, saying the state's prison system has reached a crisis stage. The 5,400 beds in prisons are full on any given day, and another 1,800 inmates who should be in those prisons are serving their time in regional jails, which are designed for pre-trial defendants and those who are serving sentences of a year or less.

The Justice Center report attributes the overcrowding problem to a few key factors, including a lack of supervision of offenders upon their release from prison and not enough community-based substance abuse treatment programs. Both of those factors increase the likelihood that an offender will end up back in prison, the report said.

If the group's policy recommendations are adopted, the state's prison population could decrease by about 2 percent and reduce operating costs by $141.8 million during the next five years, according to the report. The Justice Center also recommends reinvesting $25.5 million of that amount into substance abuse treatment.

"You can definitely bank on many aspects of this report being incorporated into legislation that will be introduced by the governor," Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said.

Tomblin will introduce the legislation "in the upcoming weeks," Shuler Goodwin said. It will focus on streamlining the prison system, particularly in the area of improved supervision for those on parole, and reallocating resources toward substance abuse treatment, she said.

Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, serves on the Council of State Governments' prison overcrowding working group. He views the report as a road map for handling the problem without reducing criminal penalties.

"Some fear this will be interpreted that we are soft on crime," he said. "I view it as operating within our current criminal standards to deal with our prison population more cost effectively."

Jenkins said he's encouraged by the report's recommendation to reinvest in community-based substance abuse treatment programs. He noted that about half of the offenders entering the prison system each year are being re-incarcerated because of a parole or probation violation.

"Some of those are technical violations because they failed a drug screen," Jenkins said. "Does it make sense to put them back in prison for several years at the taxpayer's expense, or should we provide them with an intensive wake-up call to help them become clean?"

Jenkins said he hopes the discussion about substance abuse treatment isn't limited to those who commit crimes.

"We need services for all of those who are suffering from an addiction," he said. "That will also have a positive impact on our prison population."

Delegate Carol Miller, R-Cabell, attended a roundtable discussion about prison overcrowding in Austin, Texas, in December that was sponsored by the Council of State Governments. She learned West Virginia is in a position to learn from the mistakes and take advantage of the successes of the 17 states that have gone through the same process.

"A report is only a tool. The devil's in the details and that will come in the bill," she said. "I don't want to let people out of prison early, especially violent offenders, for the sake of saving money. But I've learned that if we can supervise, counsel and hold accountable certain people through community corrections and treatment, then that should be a key part of any legislation we approve."

Delegate Doug Reynolds, D-Cabell, said he hopes Tomblin's proposal gives judges substance abuse treatment as an option on the front and back end of the judicial process.

"I would like to see an assessment tool that identifies a first-time, nonviolent offender and puts them on a path to substance abuse treatment early on in the judicial process," Reynolds said. "Or that there be some type of mandatory drug treatment program that is reflected in the sentencing process. We have to make sure there are incentives to treatment and that treatment be made available."

Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, said a concern that arose for her after reading the Justice Center's report was the increasing number of parole-eligible inmates who completed their sentences instead because documents were not prepared in time for their hearing.

When evaluating an inmate for parole, the Parole Board reviews their home plan, psychological evaluations, criminal history and post-sentence investigation reports. If any of these documents are missing, the inmate is placed under "further consideration" status and their parole hearing is postponed. The number of inmates placed under this status nearly doubled in five years, from 730 in 2007 to 1,432 in 2011, according to the Justice Center report.

Sobonya also said she wants to see assurances in Tomblin's legislation that a portion of the money saved from changes to the prison system is reinvested in community-based treatment programs.

"The money we capture as a result of these changes should follow the people that truly need treatment," she said. "A lot of times when we've saved money it has fallen into the black hole that is state government."

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.

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