CHARLESTON (AP) - West Virginia's top leaders are uniting behind a plan to target the growing inmate crowding crisis, and are pledging the needed support for a comprehensive study of the state's criminal justice system.
The development clears a key obstacle after years of debate over how to keep the public safe while steering people convicted of crimes away from winding up back behind bars. While West Virginia ranks low both for crime rates and its number of inmates, its prisons and network of regional jails are all at or over capacity. Officials have wrangled over the cost of a new prison as well as programs, particularly substance abuse treatment, meant to deter repeat offenders.
The Justice Reinvestment project overseen by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments worked with at least 16 other states with similar problems, including neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania. But the project's reviews require the cooperation of a state's officials from all three branches of government and across party lines.
That needed support is reflected in a letter to the project's partners signed last month by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Supreme Court Chief Justice Menis Ketchum, Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Rick Thompson, all Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall and House Minority Leader Tim Armstead also signed on, as did Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein and the president of the state prosecuting attorneys association.
Tomblin first proposed enlisting the Justice Reinvestment project in February, while the Legislature wrangled over dueling approaches to inmate crowding. The year's regular session saw a wide-ranging measure fail on its final night, amid GOP-led concerns about scaling back penalties for certain categories of drug offenders. Armstead, R-Kanawha, said at the time that passage of that bill would cost his caucus' support of the study.
The seven-page letter outlines West Virginia's quandary: while its crime rate has not risen significantly, its behind-bars population has. The number of inmates convicted of felonies and sentenced to corrections facilities has quadrupled since 1990, to more than 6,900. That's left the state's prisons at capacity, forcing around 1,800 convicted felons to serve at least parts of their term in regional jails. The 10 jails were designed to hold a total of 2,900 inmates, but had more than 4,740 as of mid-May, according to state officials.
These jails are meant for people convicted of misdemeanors or who face unresolved criminal charges. Among other issues, the now-overcrowded jails lack the mental health, substance abuse and rehabilitation-oriented programs that are routinely mandated by felony sentences.