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Editorial: Prison study stresses need for more addiction treatment

Jan. 23, 2013 @ 11:14 PM

A group trying to help West Virginia cope with its prison and jail crowding problem has come back with recommendations that appear to get at the root causes of the issue.

It's encouraging that state officials are already taking to heart some of the consultants' findings. Now it remains to be seen whether lawmakers and the governor will get on board to make additional investments that could help the state avoid even costlier options.

Representatives of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments, on Tuesday submitted their recommendations to state officials. They were asked to help come up with solutions for the growth in the state's incarceration rate, which has the state's prisons at capacity and about 2,000 convicted felons in regional jails that weren't designed for so many inmates or to provide treatment, education and other services.

Among the recommendations are a more careful assessment of offenders before they enter the criminal justice system and to "respond swiftly and with certainty" against released offenders who violate terms of their probation, parole or other release. Both of those strategies make sense. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals apparently agrees with one aspect. It announced Tuesday that beginning Aug. 1 every felon must submit to a widely used, research-based test meant to measure their risks and needs before they're sentenced.

But perhaps the most crucial finding from the Justice Reinvestment consultants is that the state should give more support to community-based programs aimed at moving offenders away from crime. To do that, the researchers said, the state should commit $25.5 million over five years toward substance abuse and addiction treatment. "Substance abuse was identified time and again as a major factor behind reoffending," said Marc Pelka, program director for Justice Reinvestment, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Pelka's assessment should come as no surprise. Corrections officials and others have said for years that a significant majority of offenders are in prison or jail because of problems related to substance abuse. Yet the state has few facilities to help people with addictions and has invested relatively little in such programs despite some efforts in the Legislature to do more.

The researchers say their recommendations can help the state avoid spending $200 million to construct a new prison and $140 million to pay for its operations over a period of five years.

The $25.5 million recommended for addiction treatment includes $500,000 to assist released offenders with housing and $2 million to train probation officers and community-based corrections staff. Compared with the costs associated with a new prison, $25 million is a bargain, one that likely will pay the bigger dividend of helping more people turn away from a life of crime. The legislature and the governor should jump on it.

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