Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Page: 1A

A national nonprofit group says West Virginia could save millions of dollars over the next five years – and avoid building a new prison – if it kept closer tabs on inmates once they leave the prison system and increased substance abuse treatment programs for ex-cons.

Officials expect the changes to save the state about $116.3 million over the next five years.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced last June that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments, had agreed to conduct a thorough review of the state’s jails and prisons.

The work group has now finished that study, which was funded by the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, and is making recommendations to Tomblin’s office for a major overhaul to the state’s criminal justice system.

There currently are about 7,500 people in West Virginia’s prison system – including about 1,700 prisoners held in regional jails due to overcrowding in prisons – and that number is expected to climb to about 8,900 by 2018 if no changes are made.

But work group members predict the state’s prison population could actually fall by about 2 percent in the next five years if their proposed policy changes are adopted.

The group estimates the changes would save West Virginia $141.8 million in gross operational costs between now and 2018, with about $25.5 million reinvested in substance use treatment programs.

Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy advisor for the Justice Center, said the suggestions cover two main areas, increasing supervision of offenders once they leave the criminal justice system and reducing substance abuse.

According to the group’s report, 22 percent of new commitments are for drug offenses and 66 percent of people entering West Virginia prisons in 2011 needed substance abuse treatment.

But Reynolds said the state’s criminal justice system currently offers no substance abuse programs other than the ones available in prisons. He said there are 13 substance abuse treatment providers in the state, but court and jail officials sometimes have difficulty securing those services for offenders.

In addition to spending more money to increase the availability of treatment services, work group members recommended the state give judges authority to sentence convicted persons to treatment programs.

The report also calls for the state’s criminal justice system to better monitor individuals once they are released from prison.

It says 28.5 percent of people released from prison in 2008 returned to prison within three years. In 2011, 28 percent of individuals released from prison returned to society without any kind of court supervision.

“They serve their time, and once they walk out the door, there’s no supervision,” Reynolds said.

That is a problem because many prisoners have become so accustomed to having their every decision made for them that they cannot function in normal society. He said recidivism, or return, rates could be reduced if the state kept a better eye on ex-prisoners.

The group suggests all newly released prisoners be monitored upon their release. The length of supervision could depend on the seriousness of the prisoner’s crime and his or her likelihood to commit another crime.

Individuals who violated the conditions of their supervision would be subject to “swift, certain and cost-effective sanctions,” the report said. Those actions could include placing the person on probation or home confinement or sending them back to jail for a short time.

If a person was sent back to jail for breaking the terms of their parole, they would not automatically receive a harsh sentence.

Reynolds said the average individual who violates parole spends two years in jail. Those who violate their probation agreements spend an average 1.7 years in jail.

The group suggests parole violators be sentenced to 60 days in jail for an initial offense and 120 days for a second offense, provided the person did not commit a new crime or try to flee supervision.

Reynolds estimates a supervision program would free about 800 beds each year in jails, and that would “chip away” at the backlog of prisoners awaiting beds in prisons.

The group also proposed changes to streamline the state’s parole process.

Bureaucratic hiccups currently leave hundreds of prisoners in limbo as they await parole.

When the Parole Board is considering releasing a prisoner, members review the inmate’s “home plan,” their criminal history and a psychological evaluation. Prisoners are placed under “further consideration” if any of those documents are missing, and their hearing is postponed until all documents are completed and submitted.

According to the report, more than 1,400 people were placed “under further consideration” in 2011, up from 730 in 2007.

Fifty-seven percent of the 1,400 in 2011 were given that status because they did not have a home plan, while 17 percent were awaiting a psychological evaluation.

The workgroup suggested the state streamline the parole process by helping prisoners without home plans find housing and by requiring full psychological assessments only when a preliminary screening indicates it is needed.

Suggestions from the report likely will make their way into proposed bills once the 2013 legislative session begins next month.

The state Supreme Court took more immediate action on Tuesday, issuing a new policy directive partially inspired by the work group’s findings.

Beginning Aug. 1, 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,” state Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury said in a statement.

“It’s another tool at the judge’s disposal to help enhance public safety.”

Canterbury, who was a member of the work group and is the former executive director of the state’s Regional Jail Authority, praised the recommendations.

“Having run the jails for eight years and done this job for eight years, it’s pretty clear that we face a real public safety problem when you have a person sitting in a cell one day and on the street the next day,” he said.

“Public safety is not always enhanced by locking people up. Some people, by being placed on probation and having to do certain things to meet the terms of that probation, will be able to turn his or her life around.”