WV officials announce prison overcrowding initiative - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

WV officials announce prison overcrowding initiative


Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin launched a public safety initiative Tuesday that brings several stakeholders together to study and address the state's crowded prisons and crime rates.

The Pew Center on the States will provide funding for the project. The U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance will lead the study. The department recently conducted a similar project in Texas, where the prison population was rapidly growing.

"In Texas, they were getting ready to build billion dollars' worth of penitentiaries," West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Chief Justice Menis Ketchum said Tuesday. "As a result of the studies, they actually closed two of them."

Tomblin said the state must act to address the problem, but "we cannot do it alone."

"We must start at the beginning," he said.

Tomblin said nearly 7,000 people are incarcerated in West Virginia right now, and about 1,800 Division of Corrections inmates currently are held in regional jail facilities because there is not enough room.

"Our prison population is growing, and our violent crime rate is increasing," Tomblin said. "We have a choice to make: continue on this path, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on top of what we're already appropriating in hopes that it has more of an impact on crime than it has to date, or use data to determine if there is a way to spend less and have a bigger impact on crime."

The prison population has increased about 5.7 percent each year from 2000 to 2009.

"That growth rate makes it nearly three and a half times higher than the national average and one of the fastest growing prison populations in the U.S.," Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said in a news release. "We need to find out why we're such an outlier and to think about how to reverse the trend of prison population growth."

Kessler named Sen. Mark Wills, D-Mercer, to head the Senate delegation to the working group along with Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, and Mike Hall, R-Putnam.

House Speaker Rick Thompson said Tuesday he's glad the group will focus on how to keep West Virginians safe while relieving the stress on the state's facilities.

"Hopefully this initiative will identify strategies to connect offenders with the services they need so that they don't continue to cycle through our courtrooms and correctional facilities," Thompson said.

Delegate Tim Miley, D-Harrison, Delegate Harry Keith White, D-Mingo and a Republican representative will participate in the project along with the Taylor County prosecuting attorney's office, the public defender's office, the West Virginia Association of Counties and other stakeholders.

Steve Canterbury, administrator of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, said this study will help objectively look at several sources of data.

"It takes all three branches and both parties working together to enhance public safety so someone doesn't cycle through the system," he said. "Recidivism is a waste of taxpayer money because the problem should have been solved the first time."

Tomblin said he expected the group to have policy solutions ready in time for the start of the 2013 regular Legislative session.

The "justice reinvestment" approach has been used in more than two dozen states including Kentucky, according to information from Tomblin's office. The study in Kentucky resulted in policies that are projected to save taxpayers $422 million during the next 10 years, according to Tomblin's news release.

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