Last week, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin introduced a proposal that aims to increase public safety and improve the efficiency of West Virginia's criminal justice system, while also reducing state Division of Corrections spending.
This week, key officials in Randolph County's criminal justice system weighed in on the three-pronged proposal.
The proposed policy framework -which was pieced together by a 22-member bipartisan panel called the Justice Reinvestment Working Group- would save taxpayers more than $140 million and reinvest $25.5 million in substance abuse and addiction treatment for people on community supervision, according to a press release from the governor's office.
In his Jan. 22 announcement, Tomblin said he made it clear to the research panel that "any policies developed must directly address the criminal behavior that puts more and more people behind bars." That's largely because a June 2012 study found that over the past decade, the number of people imprisoned in West Virginia rose three times faster than the national average.
"The growth has been a significant factor in forcing approximately one-quarter of people sentenced to state prison to spend those terms in regional jail, which are now above operating capacity," according to the release.
Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Parker said the statewide trend matches up to what's going on in Randolph County.
"Locally, we have seen a fairly significant increase in the past year in the number of offenders that are incarcerated, both in the regional jail and in prison," Parker said, "so Randolph County has seen an increase similar to that seen around the state."
- The first prong of the Justice Reinvestment Working Group's proposal recommends the state adopt a risk assessment to identify a person's likelihood of recommitting a crime.
Randolph County Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong said that the more information available to a judge at sentencing hearings, the better.
"While I am not convinced the assessments will substantially change sentencing outcomes, I have no problem with receiving additional information," Wilfong remarked. "That certainly can only help."
Parker said he thought an "extensive" assessment could, in some cases, address the problem of prison overcrowding.
"Although every case will need to be reviewed individually and the facts of certain cases will still result in the state seeking incarceration," Parker said, "I believe looking to the core issues in nonviolent offenses and obtaining an extensive assessment to determine which individuals will benefit from an alternative sentence with appropriate services can be effective in addressing prison overcrowding."
- The second prong of the proposal calls for a "significant reinvestment" in addiction treatment that would be provided to people under supervision with high needs. The panel says that's necessary because over the last six years the number of people on community supervision who were revoked to prison climbed 47 percent; about 80 percent of the violations responsible for the revocations stemmed from drug or alcohol use.
Chief Randolph County Magistrate Ben Shepler said substance abuse treatment is essential for people on community supervision.
"If we don't treat the individuals for their substance abuse problems, they (offenders) will keep committing crimes and introduce these addictions to other people that they come into contact with," Shepler said. "If a person suffers substance abuse problems, the likelihood of being able to hold down a job is very low, and in turn, causes the individual to commit crimes like larceny, shoplifting, repetitive DUIs, receiving and transferring stolen property, burglaries.
"Even most domestic-related charges stem from substance abuse," Shepler added.
Wilfong said investing in addiction treatment is a timely, nationwide topic of discussion.
"I think our state, and the nation as a whole, is considering that issue right now," Wilfong said. "We know that 90 percent of all crimes committed are either directly or indirectly linked to drug and/or alcohol abuse/use. The obvious conclusion is that if we can reduce substance abuse, we should see a decline in criminal activity.
"If this is true," she continued, "addressing the root problem of substance abuse is critical. Fewer crimes being committed means fewer people being sent to prison. So naturally, this could have a great impact on the prison population."
Parker agreed that the root problem of substance abuse needs to be uprooted.
"A significant majority of cases that are prosecuted by my office involve substance abuse/addiction in some form," the prosecuting attorney said. "As such, I think it is of the utmost importance to offer treatment to individuals who do wind up receiving an alternative sentence.
"Without addressing the root problem that caused the criminal behavior in the first place, you cannot realistically hope to minimize the recidivism rate," he said. "However, the defendants that are given the opportunity of an alternative sentence have to be accountable and be willing to follow through with the necessary services for an alternative sentence to work properly.
"We are fortunate in Randolph County to have both an adult drug court and a juvenile drug court, both of which promote a lot of the same goals that have been recommended by the Justice Reinvestment Working Group," Parker added.
- The third branch of the proposal would put legislation into place guaranteeing that no one would be released from prison without supervision. That's a proposition Wilfong and Shepler embraced whole-heartedly.
"I believe it is critical to have community supervision for someone who is being discharged from prison, and readmitted to live in our communities, after they have paid their debt to society in jail," Wilfong said. "Continued support for sobriety and a drug-free lifestyle is critical. In some situations, it is important for an individual to be monitored to reduce the likelihood that they reoffend."
Shepler said that currently, a person released from prison is only supervised in the following situations - if that person makes parole, or if they have been convicted of a sex crime or a crime involving child abuse and are therefore required to register on a database.
"I know of no other situation where once a person serves their full sentence, by law is supervised upon release," the magistrate said.
That's a situation he'd like to see changed - but it can only be done via legislation.
"It's very important for individuals who have been released from prison to be under some type of supervision for various reasons," Shepler said. "If these people are being watched, then we know where they are living, we know if they are working and it also allows us to continue to make sure the individual is taking the classes and counseling sessions to help with their addictions and in some cases, it would insure the safety of the victims of the crimes these individuals committed."
- Even if it's not clear exactly how it will be done, Wilfong, Parker and Shepler are convinced something needs to be done about prison overcrowding.
"The biggest issue with overcrowding in the prisons, from my perspective, is the length of time it takes for an inmate to be transferred from the regional jail system to the penitentiary, waiting on a space to come open," Wilfong said.
Shepler said that's problematic because regional jails aren't set up to house people for long-term sentences - for examples, ones that exceed a year.
"I know that our own TVRJ (Tygart Valley Regional Jail) has been at max capacity several times over the last year, which could cause issues in the screening time when an individual comes into jail, (issues with) monitoring problem-causing inmates, and even fewer educational and other programs." Such programs, Shepler said, occupy inmates and in turn, help keep their frustration levels down.
"Overcrowded prisons and jails make circumstances inside those facilities very dangerous for the inmates and the staff who work there," he said.
Contact Katie Kuba by email at email@example.com.