Tom Miller: Prison recommendations offer cost-limiting ideas
There are some 7,500 people currently in West Virginia's state prison system and about 1,700 of them are temporarily housed in 10 multi-county regional jails because state penal facilities are woefully overcrowded. That number could increase by 1,400 in the next five years, according to most experts, unless a major overhaul of the state's criminal justice system is initiated soon.
Growing concerns in state government about this alarming trend prompted Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to ask the nonprofit Council of State Governments for help to conduct a thorough review of the state's jails and prisons via its Justice Reinvestment Initiative -- a project by the Council's Justice Center.
This study is now completed and the group has made recommendations for a major overhaul of this state's criminal justice system. The group also suggests it is possible that the state's prison population could actually decline by about 2 percent in the next five years if its proposed changes are adopted.
It's no surprise that the increasing twin problems of drug-related crimes and substance abuse are major reasons for the alarming increases in the state's prison population. According to the final report, two of every three individuals entering West Virginia prisons in 2011 needed substance abuse treatment. Another cause for concern is the fact that more than one of every four people released from prison in 2008 was back in jail within three years.
Carl Reynolds, a senior legal and policy advisor for the Justice Center, noted that West Virginia's criminal justice system doesn't have any substance abuse programs except for those available in prison. There are 13 substance abuse treatment centers in the state, he added, but court and jail officials often have trouble providing these services to offenders.
It seems certain that some of the suggested changes in this state's current criminal justice system will turn up in bills that will be introduced at the 60-day legislative session beginning on Feb. 13. But the State Supreme Court took some immediate action of its own last week.
In a policy directive partly inspired by this work group's conclusions, the court directed that beginning on Aug. 2, 2013, every felon convicted in circuit court will undergo a risk and needs assessment test.
"This assessment gives each judge objective information about the likelihood of the felon re-offending and what needs must be met to prevent such recidivism," said State Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury. "It's another tool at the judge's disposal to help enhance public safety."
The bottom line is that West Virginia could save millions of dollars -- and avoid building a costly new state prison facility -- over the next five years by keeping closer tabs on the hundreds of prison inmates once they leave the prison system. But increased substance abuse treatment programs for these ex-cons is probably even more important to achieve this goal.
It's still a long time until the 2014 general election and the decision by West Virginia voters on who will succeed retiring U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., since he has announced he will not seek another six-year term next year in that election.
But the initial public opinion poll by Harper Polling -- admittedly a Republican-leaning national firm that was started to compete with the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling -- suggests U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has an early double digit lead over the three most likely Democratic contenders to take Rockefeller's seat. She hopes to become this state's first Republican U. S. Senator in nearly half a century.
Perhaps the most interesting result of the poll is that Rep. Capito holds a narrow 46 to 45 percent lead over Rep. Nick Rahall among potential voters in the 3rd Congressional District where Rahall has been elected every two years since 1976. The poll also indicates Capito has a 25-point lead over former U.S. Sen. Carte Goodwin -- who served a four-month term following the death of U. S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., in 2010 -- and a 23-point lead over State Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis. Goodwin and Davis are two other Democrats who have indicated they might file to run in the 2014 Democrat primary election for the seat Sen. Rockefeller will give up.
The most compelling result of this admittedly partisan polling effort is that Rep. Capito received a 55 percent favorable rating among state voters while Goodwin, who received a 52 percent favorable rating, was the only one of the three potential Democrat candidates with a rating of 50 percent or more.
The state Division of Motor Vehicles has changed its license plates from embossed numbers and letters to a flat design on a thinner sheet of aluminum, according to Joe Miller, who retired earlier this month as DMV commissioner. It's just like the special "Friends of Coal" plates that were first issued nearly two years ago.
This new license plate celebrates West Virginia's 150 years of statehood (1863-2013). Miller estimates the state will save at least $600,000 each year with the new system. And these aluminum plates will be more environmentally friendly as well since the present practices of painting the plates and sending them through large ovens to cure will both be eliminated.
Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.
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