Editorial: Addiction treatment a logical piece of solving prison issue
Some West Virginia lawmakers, various agency officials and in-state experts have advocated for years that the Mountain State provide more treatment resources for people with substance abuse issues.
Despite all the talk -- and acknowledgment by top officials that addiction is an acute problem in our state -- relatively little has been done on that front. Perhaps now, though, the state's policymakers will listen to an outsider.
The outsider in this case is the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. It was asked by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislative leaders to examine West Virginia's prison crowding problem and recommend ways to fix it. Formal recommendations are expected in January.
In an update to lawmakers Monday, one of the Justice Center's key messages was that substance abuse or addiction plays a large role in filling the state's prisons and 10 regional jail beyond their intended capacities. Carl Reynolds, a Justice Center senior adviser, said 22 percent of new prison commitments are for drug offenses and 62 percent of offenders sent to prison when their probation is revoked show signs of substance abuse or addition, according to an Associated Press report.
Reynolds' description of addiction treatment services now available for offenders and ex-offenders spelled out the treatment holes. He said the state's prison-based residential treatment program generally is effective, but the same was not true for treatment services associated with day report centers throughout the state. The regional jails, which house about 1,800 convicted felons that should be the responsibility of the state prison system, weren't designed to provide treatment.
And offenders who get out of prison or jail? Neither the state's probation nor parole program provides or funds any substance abuse services, Reynolds said. In short, inmates can't expect much if any help after they are released.
The bottom line, Reynolds said, is that an estimated 1,950 people either on probation or parole need continued services, ranging from outpatient treatment to a residential program. If the state was to institute a much more robust community-based treatment system, the number of repeat offenders could be cut by 24 percent, according to the Justice Center's findings.
The question now is whether state officials will take the recommendation to heart. The state's lack of treatment resources has been well-documented, but correcting that deficiency can't be done without a commitment of substantial dollars. Treatment centers simply don't spring up on their own, particularly to serve criminal offenders.
If the state takes a significant step in this direction, it could help ease the prison crowding problem, reduce crime associated with substance addiction and help thousands of people reclaim productive lives.
And it probably would be far cheaper than paying $200 million for a new prison plus the costs of operating it.