WELLSBURG - Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has seen West Virginia's prison population "nearly double" during his 38 years in state government, and he believes drugs and alcohol to be the root of the problem.
"The biggest cause of people going to jail today is substance abuse - whether it's the direct reliance upon the drugs or the crimes they are committing to get the necessary funds to buy drugs," he said. "There is a variety of things, but it goes back to substance abuse in 80 percent of the cases."
Tomblin came to the Brooke County Courthouse in Wellsburg Thursday for a ceremonial signing of the bill, a measure passed by the Legislature earlier this year to address prison overcrowding. Among other provisions, the legislation expands adult drug courts to all counties in the state.
Photo by Joselyn King
West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin watches as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signs into law a measure addressing prison overcrowding Thursday in Wellsburg.
The Northern Panhandle Adult Drug Court and DUI Court was the first of its kind in West Virginia. It began handling cases on Aug. 1, 2005, according to Tomblin and court officers. The signing Thursday took place just prior to a drug court graduation ceremony.
Circuit Court Judge Martin J. Gaughan joined Tomblin for the ceremony in Gaughan's courtroom. Also in attendance were state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin and Steve Canterbury, administrator for the high court.
At present, when an inmate is released from prison, the person re-enters the community without much supervision or help in kicking past bad habits, Tomblin noted.
"A lot of them do not know where they are going to live," he said. "They go back into the same environment, and in a short period of time are back in prison for a long period of time. That costs taxpayers money.
"What we're hoping to do is give them supervised release, help them find jobs and clean up their lives," he continued. "There is a problem of substance abuse in West Virginia. This bill helps to address those substance abuse problems, keep them out of trouble and turn them back into productive citizens."
The new law is based on laws successfully enacted in other states, including Texas. It seeks to curb recidivism by creating a new sentencing option that pairs intensive supervision with effective community-based drug rehabilitation treatment. It also requires all judicial circuits to participate in a drug court or regional drug court by July 1, 2016.
In addition, all people convicted of violent crimes would be mandated to receive intensive supervision in the community after serving a prison sentence. Those violating conditions of their parole would face "graduated sanctions," also known as "shock incarceration," instead of being returned to jail under the new law.
Tomblin noted there are about 7,000 inmates in the state's prison system. State penitentiaries have the capacity to hold about 5,500; the remaining 1,500 inmates are placed in regional jails.
He said another option would be to build a new prison in West Virginia. Construction would cost the state $200 million to $300 million, and the cost of operating the facility would mean an additional $75 million annually in taxpayer dollars, according to Tomblin.