The authors of the new report focused on ways to deal with the rapidly growing prison population in West Virginia will be in Charleston for the 2013 Regular Legislative Session.
Carl Reynolds, the Senior Legal and Policy Counsel for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, says he and others are now working on draft legislation based on the study’s findings.
Overall, the report says the state’s prison overcrowding problems can be eased by better assessing those convicted of crimes and improving the monitoring of people once they are released.
Reynolds says it’s very clear any bill will have to include additional funding for substance abuse treatment programs.
“The problem of substance abuse is really overwhelming the criminal justice system in West Virginia,” Reynolds said on Wednesday’s MetroNews Talkline.
“Frankly, I felt like some of the people we were talking to, who work in the system, are beginning to be traumatized by the level of and the severity of the problems that they’re seeing in the people that come before them on the bench.”
For the past decade, the incarceration rate in West Virginia has been three times the national average, with many prison inmates forced to stay in regional jails because of a lack of space.
According to current estimates, the state’s prison population is expected to grow by another 24% over the next five years and, Reynolds says, many of those future prisoners will be addicts.
“We heard comments about, many times, from judges and prosecutors basically saying, ‘I’m not trying to be hard on these people, I’m locking them up to save their lives,’” he said.
Estimates show substance abuse programs cost $1,000 to $7,000 per person, depending on the level of severity. Housing an inmate for a year in a West Virginia prison costs $24,000.
Reynolds says investments in substance abuse treatment programs will pay off in the long run.
He points to Texas where, he says, some of the recommendations they’ve made for West Virginia are already working. “People are actually seeking even more of the same, more reform in the same direction,” he said from Austin on Wednesday.
You can see the full report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center at www.justicereinvestment.org.
The 2013 Regular Legislative Session opens on Wednesday, February 13th at the State Capitol.