The chairman of the House of Delegates' Heath and Human Resources committee says new data on the financial impact of substance abuse in the justice system is "appalling" and show the state needs to be more aggressive in fighting substance abuse.
Last week, the West Virginia Prevention Resource Center released a study showing that the annual cost of substance abuse to the state criminal justice system has increased by more than $157 million per year since 2006, going from $272.4 million in 2006 to $429.7 million last year.
That figure is expected to skyrocket to $695 million a year by 2017 if current trends continue.
Data showed that the percentage of crimes either directly or indirectly tied to drugs rose from 16.7 percent in 2006 to 36.5 percent of total crime in 2010, with alcohol-related offenses holding steady at about one third of other offense.
That would mean that nearly two-thirds of all offenses in the justice system were tied to some form of substance abuse.
House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said those figures need to be a wake-up call for lawmakers.
"Those statistics are appalling," Perdue said. "Actually, appalling is not a big enough word, but there's just not enough syllables or letters that could possibly cover the fear or concern and be expressed in one word.
"It's fundamentally unbelievable in a state of less than 2 million people that our debt in the criminal justice system is more than $400 million," he said. "You say to yourself, 'Good grief, how did we let it get this far?' "
Perdue has been working to secure more money for substance abuse programs across the state. During the legislative session earlier this year, the House passed a $10 million appropriation for those programs, but that legislation did not advance in the Senate.
Perdue also had hoped the funding proposals would be added to the recent redistricting special session call, but they were not.
He said he spoke with acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin about the funding, and Tomblin said he wanted to make sure the money would be allocated to the most effective programs possible first.
Tomblin set up six regional substance abuse task forces to study the best way to address substance abuse in each part of the state. Perdue was named to the task force covering the southwestern portion of the state; it's set to meet for the first time today.
"My suggestion as a member of a task force is going to be focused on bringing funding to the table and bringing to the table programs that we know work," he said.
He said that includes programs like teen drug courts, day report centers and substance abuse treatment centers like the Healing Place in Huntington that have proven effective.
"We know they work. We don't need to find new programs and invent new wheels. We've got wheels; we just need to find a way to put them on the bus," Perdue said.
He said the costs of substance abuse programs in the criminal justice system don't cover the total costs in the state health care system and workforce in general.
The Prevention Resource Center is going to study those costs in the coming months, but prior estimates put the total impact of substance abuse on the state economy in excess of $1.6 billion.
With the costs in the criminal justice system alone expected to rise to more than $265 million a year by 2017, Perdue said lawmakers need to invest in treatment programs to stem the tide of addiction before more people fall victim to it.
"We're looking at disease that is quickly overrunning our ability to treat it, and we've got to contribute enough resources to treat the disease," he said. "The sense of urgency is profound - these folks are dying every day."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.
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