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Tomblin Wants Prison Study

Outside views of overcrowding sought

February 25, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

CHARLESTON (AP) - Earl Ray Tomblin hopes to enlist a national group praised for aiding criminal justice systems in other states as West Virginia lawmakers wrestle with proposals targeting the state's inmate crowding crisis.

Tomblin said he's asked the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments to study West Virginia's situation.

"They've been able to go into states and look at their legal systems, their penal systems," Tomblin said. "We're hoping to use their model here in the state."

The center has embarked on the Justice Reinvestment Project, aided by funding from the Pew Charitable Trust and the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance. The process involves a one- to two-year review of a state's data and the latest research, center Director Michael Thompson said.

"We highlight ways in which states can save money, and we highlight ways in which states can reinvest that money to improve public safety," Thompson said.

West Virginia could use the help. Its 13 prisons and other facilities for convicted felons are at capacity, with 5,146 inmates, according to the latest Division of Corrections figures. As a result, 1,799 felons are serving their sentences in the state's 10 regional jails.

Having replaced county jails, these facilities are meant for people awaiting trial or serving short terms for misdemeanor crimes. They also lack the sort of treatment, counseling, training and other programs meant to help felons avoid re-offending once they're released.

Housing these felons has left each jail with 175 to 300 more inmates than they were designed for, jail agency official John Lopez estimated Friday. To handle the spate of arrests that typically occur over the weekends, some of the jails put up these temporary detainees in their gyms, Lopez said.

The state Division of Justice and Community Services estimates that West Virginia has one of the nation's fastest-growing prison populations, and projects it will grow by 4.6 percent annually on average during this decade.

Tomblin said he also seeks to avoid building a new prison, if possible. Officials have put the potential price tag at $100 million to $200 million. Texas was looking at spending $800 million on new prisons in 2007 when it approached the Justice Center, Thompson said. The resulting review yielded recommendations that prompted Texas officials to cancel the construction plans. It cut its probation revocation rate by 25 percent and reduced its inmate population by more than 8,000 people after three years, according to Justice Center figures.

Among other steps, the center's review advised Texas to focus resources on in-house and community-based substance abuse programs and mental health services. After investing $220 million in carrying out these recommendations, the state saw a net savings of $440 million, Thompson said.

Texas' experience helped prompt Ohio and North Carolina to pursue the center's help. Both states enacted legislation based on the findings of their reviews last year. But the Justice Reinvestment Project requires bipartisan support across the three branches of a state's government. Tomblin administration and state Supreme Court officials have taken the lead in developing that needed level of cooperation.

The Legislature's top leaders, Senate President Jeff Kessler of Marshall County and House Speaker Rick Thompson, expressed enthusiasm Friday for the study and its potential to help West Virginia. Like Tomblin and the Supreme Court's majority, both are Democrats. Republicans are seeking more information about the proposed review, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said Friday.

Foes of a Justice Center review include Bill Maloney, Tomblin's likely GOP opponent in this year's gubernatorial election.

The governor's "suggestion of another study simply prolongs a solution," Maloney spokesman Seth Wimer said in a Friday e-mail. "If we had real leadership in Charleston, we would be dealing with meth labs on college campuses and offering more support to successful private sector initiatives already under way in West Virginia. Gov. Tomblin isn't attacking the problem or even the results, he's just passing the buck."

 
 

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