Although in effect for slightly more than a year, legislation to reduce prison overcrowding by reducing recidivism and substance abuse is having a positive impact, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said during an event Thursday in Washington, D.C.
“Since I signed West Virginia’s Justice Reinvestment Act, we have had a 5 percent reduction in our prison population,” Tomblin said. “In April 2013, we had nearly 7,100 prisoners in our state. Last Thursday, that figure was down to 6,743. We have reduced overcrowding at our regional jail facilities by nearly 50 percent.”
The legislation was enacted in May 2013, after a yearlong study coordinated by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which recommended reducing prison overcrowding with accelerated probation and parole for nonviolent offenders, and better community-based resources for parolees, including substance-abuse treatment programs.
Tomblin told the Washington CSG event that, in April 2013, West Virginia’s corrections system was 1,746 inmates over capacity, a figure that has now dropped to 885.
“Today, we have more than 1,000 fewer people in our prisons than what was projected just a few years ago,” Tomblin said. “Without these changes, we expected to have more than 7,800 inmates in West Virginia prisons, compared to today’s total of 6,743.”
Since the passage of the legislation, Tomblin said, the state has continued efforts to reduce re-offense rates with new workforce training programs, assistance in helping parolees find appropriate housing and efforts to ensure access to community-based substance-abuse treatment for those released from prison, funded through Medicaid expansion.
“In West Virginia, our message is clear: If you commit a crime in the Mountain State, you will get caught, you will do your time and we will take reasonable, responsible steps to rehabilitate you and give you every opportunity to become a productive member of society, if that’s a step you are willing to take,” Tomblin said.
The West Virginia Democrat was joined at the event by Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who has overseen similar successes with prison-reform programs in the Keystone State.
Corbett noted that, in the 1990s, Pennsylvania was building a new prison nearly every year, as mandatory sentencing laws were causing the state’s inmate population to soar.
Michael Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center, noted that the national dialogue has changed from a partisan debate over which party could be tougher on crime to a bipartisan effort to be smart on crime, a theme echoed by Tomblin.
“I hope other states will consider the justice reinvestment model to take a “smart on crime” approach to prison overcrowding and public safety,” he said.
Reach Phil Kabler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1220.