A new study by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative has tips for easing the overcrowded conditions of West Virginia jails and prisons. These tips include assessing offenders once they have entered the criminal justice system and supervising them upon release. If West Virginia officials enact them, they could save as much as $340 million.
While West Virginia ranks only 32nd in the nation in putting adults behind bars, it ranks first in the growth of its prison population. Presently, the state’s prisons are completely filled, forcing roughly 2,000 convicts to serve part of their sentences in regional jails that were not designed to house them.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has conducted similar studies of prison population growth for other states, including Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina, with very successful results. The study recommends investing $25.5 million in substance abuse and treatment programs over the next five years. That amount would include $500,000 for assistance with housing and $2 million to train probation officers and other staff. The study’s authors believe that the recommendations will slow prison population growth, allowing the state to save $340 million building and operating a new prison over five years.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative’s findings have received favorable responses from many in the West Virginia legislature, which has just begun its new session. However, one member of the House of Delegates, Rick Thompson, expressed caution about taking a new approach. While he recognized the importance of tackling the prison overcrowding issue, he also stated that he would not support anything that meant putting “dangerous criminals” back on the streets. Nonetheless, he backed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative’s recommendation for $25.5 million in treatment program funding, stating that he would work hard to find where to get the money to pay for the necessary facilities. In the meantime, law enforcement and emergency personnel needed more funding as well. It is difficult to imagine that Thompson is a lone voice on this matter.
We at the Wolfe Law Firm are highly in favor of measures that reduce the possibility of jail time. Any West Virginia criminal defense attorney knows that too many people have had their lives thrown away as a result of being imprisoned for drug possession. Since West Virginia has one of the highest rates of drug abuse in the nation, it is simply not feasible for every drug violation to result in jail time. If the Justice Reinvestment Initiative’s recommendations are fully implemented, more people will be able to get much-needed treatment for their problems and return to normal life. No more families being torn apart due to a drug conviction. No more episodes of escalating prison violence, resulting from too many people crowded together in spaces that were not designed to accommodate them. Now, an experienced criminal defense attorney would be able to work out an agreement to have his client avoid jail time altogether and go straight to treatment. Of course any new policy should not be applied too generously — most people would agree that suspects of dangerous crimes should not receive the opportunity to avoid jail time. However, given that most drug offenders have not committed violent crimes, there is no reason why the treatment approach would not work for them.