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Editorial: Prison legislation targets core problem of addiction

Apr. 17, 2013 @ 11:10 PM

The rise in drug abuse over the past decade had a quick impact on crime.

As waves of cocaine, meth and pain pills hit West Virginia, violent crimes and property crimes increased. The violent crime rate rose 50 percent between 1995 and 2011, from 210 violent crimes per 100,000 people to 315.

As law enforcement, lawmakers and the courts responded, West Virginia's prisons began to fill up.

Most readers are familiar with the figures by now. The state's inmate population increased from 4,200 in 2001 to almost 6,900 in recent years with 1,700 of those inmates spilling over into the regional jails, which weren't built to accommodate that many.

The current trendline could mean another 2,000 inmates by 2016, and state leaders face the prospect of building a new $250 million prison that would be filled as soon as it opened. After a couple of years of discussion and a study by the Council of State Governments, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislative leaders began to push for new strategies that would reduce that prison population.

That is no easy task, but the legislation passed during the recent session takes important steps to strike at the root of the problem -- addiction.

Prison officials estimate that more than 75 percent of current inmates were sentenced for some drug-related crime. They were selling drugs, stealing to buy drugs or committing violent acts to acquire drugs.

The new legislation focuses on getting treatment help for all of these offenders, and moving non-violent offenders through the system more quickly and effectively. The key provisions include:

Mandating that every county has a drug court program by 2016. About 30 of the 55 counties now have these programs, which give non-violent offenders drug treatment and testing as an alternative to prison sentences.

Granting non-violent offenders six months early supervised release at the judge's discretion.

Adding $25 million to provide increased supervision and drug treatment for recently released inmates.

All are strategies in line with the "justice reinvestment" initiatives that have helped in other states. Cabell County Delegate Carol Miller, who has taken a particular interest in researching those efforts, spoke to the House last week about the importance of investing in long-term solutions.

"Many of the inmates are people who commit crimes to feed their addictions. They keep recycling in and out of jail and our prison system," Miller said. "We're taking a giant leap forward in helping our citizens turn their lives around."

In some states, such as Texas, similar programs have been so successful prisons are now being closed. Let's hope West Virginia's new approach can make a difference here.

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