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Study to target inmate overcrowding

Jun. 20, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia's jails and prisons have grown crowded at the same time that violent crime arrests and the unsupervised release of offenders have increased, according to a national group's initial review of the state's criminal justice system.

Analysts at the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, have also tracked a rise in repeat offenses by people previously convicted of crimes and in the prison sentences handed out for nonviolent offenses.

But what, if anything, these recent trends have to do with each other awaits further study by the project as it helps West Virginia tackle the state's growing inmate crisis, the project's Carl Reynolds told a group of state and local officials and others assigned to work with the study.

With a goal of developing policy options in time for the Legislature's 2013 session, Reynolds said the looming questions include the actual terms that inmates serve and how judges decide on punishments.

"That's obviously a key thing that we need to understand better, what happens at the sentencing stage," said Reynolds, the project's legal and policy advisor. "People get sorted out. Who goes on probation, who gets placed in community corrections, who is sent to prison?"

Reynolds helped lead an initial briefing of the working group after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other state leaders announced the study's launch Tuesday at the state Capitol. Tomblin sought to enlist the project after it aided such other states as Texas, North Carolina and Ohio with similar problems.

The U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States will fund the study. The Associated Press reported earlier that Tomblin had secured the required support for the project coming to West Virginia across party lines and among all three branches of government. House Speaker Richard Thompson and Supreme Court Chief Justice Menis Ketchum were among those at the announcement.

"We're thrilled to have the Justice Center here because we do have a problem," Ketchum said.

West Virginia's prison population has quadrupled since 1990, to more than 6,900 inmates. That's forcing around 1,800 convicted felons to serve at least parts of their sentences in regional jails, because of a lack of prison space. The network of 10 jails was designed to hold a total of 2,900 inmates, but held more than 4,740 as of mid-May, according to state officials.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative scrutinizes data from a state's criminal justice system, a process that hinges on the across-the-board cooperation. It then develops proposals with those involved in the system as well as those affected by it. The West Virginia working group named by Tomblin includes legislators from both parties, Cabell County prosecutor Chris Chiles, a criminal defense lawyer, representatives for corrections officers and counties, and the Rev. Matthew Watts of Charleston as a voice for community-based programs.

A key focus will be to ensure that the system harnesses the latest science and research to assess the risk posed by each offender, a process that protects the public and determines whether that person can be steered away from committing more crimes, Reynolds said. The project aims to help the state avoid costs and then invest in ways that strengthen its criminal justice system, Reynolds told the working group.

"I got excited about this study because we need to make West Virginia safe," Thompson said during the project announcement. "We don't want to close prisons, reduce the number of prisons and then make our people have more crime in their neighborhoods."

Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, could not attend Tuesday's announcement in Charleston, but praised it from her home county.

Sobonya is impressed by the initiative's success elsewhere. She hopes it leads to a system focused on reducing confinement costs by redirecting those expenses to treat addiction, a problem she and others say accounts for the majority of the state's prison population.

"We've got to get smarter with the way we sentence criminals," she said.

While West Virginia's crime rate remains lower than the national average, violent crime arrests have increased over the last decade as they've dropped across the U.S., according to the project's initial figures. And though the state ranks 32nd for adults behind bars, it has led the U.S. for the average annual growth of its prison population.

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