W.Va. prisons study wins support

CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia’s top leaders are uniting behind a plan to target the growing inmate crowding crisis, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press, pledging the needed support for a comprehensive study of the state’s criminal justice system.

The development clears a key obstacle after years of debate over how to keep the public safe while steering people convicted of crimes away from winding up back behind bars. While West Virginia ranks low both for crime rates and its number of inmates, its prisons and network of regional jails are all at or over capacity. Officials have wrangled over the cost of a new prison as well as programs, particularly substance abuse treatment, meant to deter repeat offenders.

The Justice Reinvestment project overseen by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments worked with at least 16 other states with similar problems, including neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania. But the project’s reviews require the cooperation of a state’s officials from all three branches of government and across party lines.

That needed support is reflected in a letter to the project’s partners signed last month by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Supreme Court Chief Justice Menis Ketchum, Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Rick Thompson, all Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall and House Minority Leader Tim Armstead also signed on, as did Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein and the president of the state prosecuting attorneys association.

Such across-the-board cooperation would ensure that the project can obtain the detailed records needed to scrutinize the state’s criminal justice system. It should also help land outside funding for the comprehensive review. The U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States finances this research, and the letter is addressed to officials with both as well as with the Urban Institute’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Administration officials expect a response from the project’s coordinators this week.

Tomblin first proposed enlisting the Justice Reinvestment project in February, while the Legislature wrangled over dueling approaches to inmate crowding. The year’s regular session saw a wide-ranging measure fail on its final night, amid GOP-led concerns about scaling back penalties for certain categories of drug offenders. Armstead, R-Kanawha, said at the time that passage of that bill would cost his caucus’ support of the proposed study.

The seven-page letter outlines West Virginia’s quandary: while its crime rate has not risen significantly, its behind-bars population has. The number of inmates convicted of felonies and sentenced to corrections facilities has quadrupled since 1990, to more than 6,900. That’s left the state’s prisons at capacity, forcing around 1,800 convicted felons to serve at least parts of their term in regional jails. The 10 jails were designed to hold a total of 2,900 inmates, but had more than 4,740 as of mid-May, according to state officials.

These jails are meant for people convicted of misdemeanors or who face unresolved criminal charges. Among other issues, the now-overcrowded jails lack the mental health, substance abuse and rehabilitation-oriented programs that are routinely mandated by felony sentences.

The letter said that West Virginia has seen the second-highest growth of corrections spending among the states, and its jails now hold the fourth-highest percentage of felons.

“Most projections show that the state’s prison population is expected to grow by 45 percent by 2020. That growth is unsustainable,” the letter said. “The corrections problem is enormous, far-reaching and complicated. The stakes for our state’s citizens could not be higher.”

West Virginia officials are hoping for results similar to those in Texas, which approached the council’s Justice Center while preparing to spend $800 million on new prisons in 2007. The resulting project review led that state to reduce its inmate population by more than 8,000 over three years and cut its probation revocation rate by one-fourth, according to Justice Center figures. Texas canceled its prison construction plans, estimating a net savings of $440 million.

More recently, the project advised Pennsylvania to improve a parole system that keeps many inmates in prison even after they are approved for parole, and revamp sentencing practices that result in thousands of short-term inmates cycling in and out of prison before they can benefit from programs that could make them less likely to commit future crimes. The project’s report for that state, issued late last month, recommended that decreasing reliance on prison space would shrink the prison population by thousands of inmates and save $350 million over five years, with only a quarter of that amount needed to finance such changes suggested for elsewhere in the system as dedicating community corrections centers for prisoners nearing parole.

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