Parole and probation revocations cost the state more than $168 million over the last five years, and many of those released from jail are not properly supervised, experts told state officials.
Officials from the Council of State Governments' Justice Center briefed state officials Thursday morning on initial findings from a study of the state's criminal justice system.
The study is part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's effort to find a solution to prison overcrowding. The extensive study is funded entirely by the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Tomblin appointed a bipartisan group of lawmakers and state officials earlier this year to work with Justice Center officials on the project.
Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy adviser at the Justice Center, briefed that group of officials on the study's progress Thursday morning in Charleston.
Reynolds told the group part of the overcrowding problem lies in the growing number of parole and probation revocations in the state.
"Revocations are outpacing the growth of new (prison) commitments," Reynolds said. "That's a real driver of what's happening in your system."
The center found the number of state prison commitments rose from 2,605 in 2005 to 3,324 in 2011. That's an increase of 28 percent.
Regular commitments - those sentenced to prison for new crimes - rose 20 percent, from 1,425 to 1,704, over that period.
However, revocations of probation, parole, home confinement and community corrections placements rose 47 percent, increasing from 851 in 2005 to 1,352 in 2011.
Half were due to technical violations - like possession of alcohol or failure to make required reports - not because someone committed a crime while on the program.
Officials calculated that revocations cost state and local governments $168.2 million over the five-year period.
That estimate was conservative, with the figure reached by multiplying the average time served by a revocation inmate by the $48.80 daily cost of housing regional jail inmates. The daily cost of housing someone in a state prison is more than $60 per day.
As the revocation rate has risen, so has the rate at which released inmates commit additional crimes. The study found the recidivism rate rose from 20 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2007.
Reynolds said the rising rate was caused in part by poor "sorting." He said that meant inmates were not placed in the rehabilitation programs best suited for them.
While community corrections, prison and parole programs all use comprehensive risk assessment programs to determine whether inmates are at high risk for re-offending, those assessments are not being done at the pretrial, sentencing or probation levels.
Reynolds said sorting inmates into proper programs would reduce their likelihood of committing more crimes.
Another problem is inmates not receiving the right kind of supervision after being released.
The number of inmates released on supervised parole has increased by 5 percent since 2007. But the number of those who simply finished their sentence and were discharged on unsupervised release has risen by 33 percent.
Reynolds said these "max-outs" are usually higher-risk offenders more than twice as likely to commit more crimes than a low-risk parolee.
Sentencing guidelines for some crimes result in the earliest date for parole and the earliest possible release date with "good time" being too close together. Good time allows inmates to reduce their sentences by as much as 50 percent for good behavior behind bars.
State Parole Board Chairman Dennis Foreman said many inmates are aware of this.
Foreman said about 40 percent of inmates waive their parole hearings, often because their release date is within a year or two and they prefer unsupervised release.
"Several of them will waive a hearing because they don't want to go out on parole," Foreman said. "They would rather sit in prison a little longer to avoid the parole officer supervision."
Reynolds said this indicates the state may need to reform some sentencing guidelines.
He said the Justice Center group aims to review those guidelines with prosecutors and judges in the coming weeks.
The study also identified some inefficient areas, such as an overuse of complete psychological evaluations on low-risk inmates and substance abuse programs for those who don't have abuse or addiction problems.
Rob Alsop, the governor's chief of staff, said reducing such inefficiencies would allow the state to spend more on community corrections and substance abuse treatment programs.
"The whole system needs to be looked at," Alsop said. "If we can make the system a little more efficient, then we can divert resources."
Alsop said reducing the $168 million in revocation spending by less than 10 percent could free up $12 to $16 million for substance abuse programs statewide.
He said there are many potential savings.
"There's things we can do at every aspect where we can turn the dial 5 or 10 degrees and we'll see a big improvement," Alsop said.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-5148.
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