West Virginia leaders teamed with a national nonpartisan advisory group Tuesday to begin work on a comprehensive study to address the crisis of prison overcrowding.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced Tuesday morning that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments, has agreed to conduct a thorough review of the state's criminal justice system.
The extensive study - funded entirely by the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance - will analyze the state's overcrowded jails and prisons and the system that deals with offenders.
"It's no secret that West Virginia's prisons and jails are overcrowded," Tomblin said during a morning press conference. "The bigger issue is criminal activity that puts more and more people behind bars. If we're going to solve the overcrowding problem, we have to start at the beginning."
Tomblin also announced the formation of a working group made up of executive branch officials, legislative leaders from both parties, judicial branch officials and representatives from key interest groups. The group will help with the study.
The group held its first meeting following Tuesday morning's press conference.
The project has proven effective in more than a dozen other states at reducing the size and cost of state prison populations by analyzing data, recommending policy changes and measuring results.
West Virginia lawmakers have been discussing overcrowding problems at length for several years but have been unable to achieve a consensus on how to fix them.
Political influences have often swayed debate.
Proposals that reduce some sentences for non-violent offenses or favor addiction treatment programs over incarceration are often criticized as soft on crime. Other lawmakers favor building new prisons - an option that, while expensive, can provide jobs in local districts.
The idea behind the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is to remove those political influences from the decision-making process.
"We're all about providing practical, non-partisan advice that's informed by the best available evidence in order to improve public safety," said Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy adviser on the project.
Reynolds said state correctional systems work best when they focus on people who are most likely to re-offend, have strong community parole and probation supervision programs and offer incentives for performance.
West Virginia had the fastest-growing prison population in the country over the past decade. Between 2000 and 2009, the state's prison population grew at an average rate of 5.7 percent each year, well over three times the national average of 1.7 per year.
Projections indicate the prison population will grow another 45 percent by 2020 if current trends continue. Budget officials project it will take an additional $70 million each year to fund that growth.
That figure doesn't take into account the $200 million estimated price tag for each new prison that will need to be built to house additional inmates.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, who was unable to attend Tuesday's press conference, said in a prepared statement that past and projected growth was the reason he fully supported the study.
"We need to find out why we're such an outlier and to think about how to reverse the trend of prison population growth," Kessler, D-Marshall, said. "The analysis offered through the Justice Reinvestment process will help us to decide how to most effectively spend public safety dollars."
Lawmakers did craft a comprehensive, 125-page bill meant to address overcrowding during interim legislative meetings last year. But that bill was whittled down to a tiny fraction of the original plan during this year's legislative session.
That's when Tomblin approached legislative leaders about bringing in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
At Tuesday's press conference, House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, admitted he was originally a little skeptical about the study.
"I'm a pretty conservative Democrat, and I think that people who commit crimes ought to go to jail and stay there," Thompson said.
The study will focus on rehabilitating criminals by evaluating individual risk factors and reducing the chance that they'll break the law again.
Once he learned more about the project's goals, Thompson said he was able to throw in his support.
"We need to make West Virginia safe," he said. "We don't want to close prisons, reduce the number of prisoners and then make our people have crimes in their neighborhoods. We'll be looking at these issues with (this) goal: to make West Virginia a safer place to live, work and raise your family."
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Menis Ketchum said Tuesday the new study had the court's full support.
"We're thrilled to have them here because we do have a problem," Ketchum said. "The judiciary will work hand-in-hand with Speaker Thompson, President Kessler, the Legislature and our governor in trying to orchestrate this matter, and we'll give all the support we can."
Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury, who oversaw the expansion of the state's Regional Jail system in the 1990s, is the court's representative on the working group.
He said it's going to take a commitment from all three branches of government to make the plan work.
"We're going to enhance public safety in a manner that really works, really does make a difference and doesn't keep circling people right through the system," Canterbury said. "After all, any time a person recidivates, that's a failed investment of taxpayer dollars because we should have been able to solve the problem the first time through."
While the study will take several months, lawmakers say they will stand behind the results.
"We all realize it's a problem," Tomblin said, "and I think we'll take whatever recommendations come out very seriously and implement all of them that will save West Virginians' tax dollars."
Sen. Mark Wills, who was appointed by Kessler to serve as a state Senate representative on the study's work group, said the Senate supports the project "100 percent."
"It's something we need to solve and I think we will," Wills said. "We need treatment and counseling so we don't have repeat offenders. Just locking them up and turning them loose isn't working, so we need to do something different."
While no Republicans attended Tuesday's press conference, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall said in a statement released by the governor's office that legislators have reached a consensus that something must be done to address the problems with the system.
"The bipartisan nature of the initiative will allow us to collaborate in developing policy options that transcend politics, even in an election year," Hall, R-Putnam, said. "All of us are committed to protecting the public while reducing correctional costs to taxpayers."
Study group officials are going to spend the next six months researching and analyzing state sentencing, probation and parole practices.
The group hopes to have initial policy recommendations completed by December and ready to present to the Legislature ahead of next year's legislative session.
BOB WOJCIESZAK/DAILY MAIL PHOTO
Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, provides an overview of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative Tuesday morning during the first meeting of a working group that will study the state's prison overcrowding problem.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5148.
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