Last updated: July 17. 2013 1:25PM - 401 Views

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Lawrence Messina

Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia can likely reduce prison crowding by assessing more quickly the risks posed by offenders and providing substance abuse treatment to those on probation, parole and other community-level supervision, researchers told state officials Monday.

The recommendations are among several findings emerging from a study of the state’s criminal justice and corrections systems by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments began scrutinizing West Virginia’s situation earlier this year. With plans to present more formal proposals in January, its staff on Monday updated a panel that includes corrections and court officials, legislators, county prosecutors, defense lawyers and community leaders.

West Virginia’s prisons are at capacity, forcing nearly 1,800 convicted felons to serve at least part of their sentences in regional jails that weren’t designed to confine them or provide treatment, education and other services. All 10 regional jails have more inmates than they were meant to hold as a result of this overflow.

Carl Reynolds, a Justice Center senior adviser, outlined the state’s drug problem and how it plays a role: West Virginians are more likely to die from drug overdoses than residents of any other state; one in 10 state adults has a substance abuse problem; 22 percent of new prison commitments are for drug offenses.

Reynolds also provided a new statistic drawn from the study’s research: 62 percent of offenders sent to prison when their probation is revoked show signs of substance abuse or addition.

“It’s a driver in that context,” he said.

But neither the probation nor parole program provides or funds any substance abuse services, Reynolds told the working group. The study has estimated that around 1,450 people on probation need these services, as do another 492 on parole. Their needs range from outpatient treatment to a residential program that continues to work with them once they’re released.

“This gives you a pretty good idea of what the need is in the criminal justice system,” he said of the finding.

The state’s prison-based residential treatment program appears effective but can be improved, while the program offered by the network of day reporting centers borders on ineffective, the study found. Reynolds commended the ongoing work by the Governor’s Advisory Council on Substance Abuse, which has documented each region’s “horrible drugs of choice” as well as the treatment services — when any — and how many beds and staff each provides.

“I think there are people in your system who have gone ahead and become criminals who may not have enough resources so that the criminal justice system is the answer to their treatment,” Reynolds said. “We would like to see a more and more robust community-based treatment system that could pick up some people that are not high-risk.”

The study found increased rates at which offenders commit new crimes and have their probation or parole revoked. The findings presented Monday suggest that West Virginia can reduce the recidivism rate by 24 percent with community-based drug treatment.

They also recommend that the state adopt evidence-based methods to assess each offender’s risk and program needs. While the Division of Corrections, the Parole Board and the community corrections program each use such a tool, some of their methods haven’t been validated. Risk assessment is absent during the pretrial, sentencing and probation phases of an offender’s case, Reynolds said.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has helped other states, including neighboring Ohio. The U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States are paying for West Virginia study, which Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin requested and then secured when officials across state government and party lines pledged to support.

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