There are some 7,500 people currently in West Virginia’s state prison system, of which about 1,700 are temporarily housed in 10 multicounty 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 their proposed changes are adopted.
It’s no surprise that the increasing problems of drug-related crimes and substance abuse are major reasons for the alarming increases in the 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, but court and jail officials often have trouble providing these services to offenders, Reynolds noted.
It seems certain that some of the suggested changes in the state’s 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.
State Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury said the assessment will give each judge information about the likelihood of the felon re-offending and what needs must be met to prevent it.
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.
Meanwhile, 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 since he has announced he will not seek another term next year.
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 has an early double digit lead over the three most likely Democratic contenders to take Rockefeller’s seat. Capito hopes to become the state’s first Republican U. S. Senator in nearly half a century.
The most compelling result of this admittedly partisan polling effort is that 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. Perhaps the most interesting result of the poll is that Capito holds a narrow 46 to 45 percent lead over Rep. Nick Rahall among potential voters in the Third Congressional District where Rahall been elected every two years since 1976.