West Virginia’s jails and prisons are bulging.
Over the last ten years, the rate of people going to jail in West Virginia has been three times the national average.
As a result, state prisons are so full that approximately one-fourth of all prisoners are doing their time in regional jails, which were designed primarily to replace the old county jails.
But it gets worse.
A report just released by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center found that the state’s prison population will increase by another 24 percent over the next five years, forcing taxpayers to spend $200 million dollars on new jails and another $150 million in operating costs.
However, the analysis by the Justice Center says there is a better way forward, not only for the taxpayers, but also for many of the prisoners.
One fundamental problem is that the vast majority of prisoners are substance abusers, and West Virginia spends no money on treatment for suspects after they are arrested or on parolees when they get out of prison. That means they are more likely to end up back on drugs and alcohol and back in prison.
The Justice Center recommends that West Virginia invest in substance abuse programs for prisoners and combine those with new sentencing options and better supervision upon release. Currently, one in four prisoners returns to the community with no one watching them.
State Supreme Court administrative director and Justice Center board member Steve Canterbury says it’s an economic issue. 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.
“Every person who recidivates represents a failed investment of taxpayer dollars,” Canterbury told me.
But does treatment instead of jail work?
Texas added 100,000 prison beds between 1989 and 1995 to try to accommodate a dramatic rise in incarcerations. In 2007, faced with having to build even more prisons, Texas decided to follow the Justice Center’s recommendations of alternative treatment and rehabilitation programs.
The Austin Statesman reported last August that Texas’ prison population has leveled off, and even declined slightly in 2011. As a result, Texas, which had one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, has dropped to fourth.
Not everyone is convinced the decline is attributable entirely to the change in corrections philosophy, but officials are hopeful. “It’s real,” criminal justice consultant Tony Fabelo told the Statesman. “It’s happening, not only in Texas, but around the country.”
One of the truisms of corrections is that you can’t lock up everyone who breaks the law and throw away the key. The vast majority of prisoners will get out one day. The trick is to lower the chances of them returning a second and third time.
The best way to accomplish that, at least according to the Justice Center, is to help criminals deal with their drug and alcohol problems. Ultimately, it’s just good economics.