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Study gives tips to ease WV inmate crowding

Jan. 22, 2013 @ 10:36 PM

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia can ease its inmate crowding crisis -- and avoid $340 million in increased spending -- through such steps as carefully assessing offenders when they enter the criminal justice system and ensuring they're supervised once released, researchers said Tuesday after a months-long study.

The state also must more strongly support its community-based efforts meant to steer offenders away from committing new crimes, the findings from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative said. Meeting that goal will require $25.5 million devoted over five years toward substance abuse and addiction treatment, researchers believe.

"Substance abuse was identified time and again as a major factor behind reoffending," said Marc Pelka, program director for Justice Reinvestment.

The policy framework offered by the study is very much about public safety, Pelka said. For instance, it calls on the corrections system to appropriately target offenders who violate the terms of their probation, parole or other release.

"This is meant to be a swift and certain and proportionate response to someone who is not complying with the conditions of their release," Pelka said. "It's based on research that shows that the best way to change someone's behavior is to respond swiftly and with certainty."

Officials are already embracing the findings.

The state Supreme Court, which oversees West Virginia's judiciary, announced Tuesday that it will require every felon to submit to a widely used, research-based test meant to measure their risks and needs before they're sentenced. Known as Level of Service/Case Management Inventory, these assessments will begin Aug. 1.

The study's report also arrives in time for the Legislature to consider its recommendations during its upcoming regular session, which begins Feb. 13. Several lawmakers from both parties were part of a special panel that worked with the researchers from Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. That working group also included prosecutors, corrections officials, defense lawyers and community leaders.

"These policies are the product of a major bipartisan undertaking to analyze our system and provide the Legislature with a set of policies that tackles issues that our state has grappled with for years," said state Sen. William Laird, D-Fayette and a working group member.

West Virginia's crime rate remains below the national average, and it ranks 32nd among states for its rate of putting adults behind bars. But it leads the nation in the growth of its inmate population. With the state's prisons at capacity, around 2,000 convicted felons are serving at least part of their sentences in regional jails that weren't designed to confine them or provide treatment, education and other services. All 10 regional jails have more inmates than they were meant to hold as a result of this overflow.

The researchers believe their recommendations can slow West Virginia's prison population growth between 2014 and 2018, avoiding the need to spend an estimated $200 million building a new prison and $140 million operating it during those five years. The $25.5 million in proposed spending toward treatment would also include $500,000 to assist released offenders with housing and $2 million to train probation officers and community-based corrections staff.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has helped other states, including Texas, North Carolina and neighboring Ohio. The U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States funded the West Virginia project. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin requested the study, which required the support of officials across state government and party lines.

Pelka expects the researchers to continue to meet with the working group, legislators and other policymakers in the coming months to explain the study's findings and help craft specific proposals.

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Online:

Justice Reinvestment project at Council of State Governments Justice Center: http://justicereinvestment.org

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