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Post-prison 'sorting' called key to W.Va. inmate overcrowding

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia has done a poor job matching offenders to the right kind of supervision or services when placing them on probation, on parole or into a community-based corrections program, according to an initial finding from the ongoing study of the state's inmate crowding crisis.

This improper "sorting" plays a role in the growth of West Virginia's prison population when that supervised release is revoked, Carl Reynolds of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative said Thursday.

Reynolds helped update a group of state leaders at the Capitol Complex on the continuing study by the initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. It aims to address the state's at-capacity prisons and overcrowded jails without sacrificing public safety. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has aided a number of states with their corrections issues. The West Virginia study is expected to provide policy recommendations in time for the 2013 legislative session.

While West Virginia ranks 32nd among states for its rate of putting adults behind bars, it is leading them all in prison population growth. Reynolds said the state also is seeing a rise in violent crime and arrests for such offenses. The study showed that the number of inmates sent back to prison because their release was revoked had increased 47 percent between 2005 and last year. The nearly 5,500 revocation cases tracked by the study cost the state $168 million. Reynolds said this route to prison is starting to outpace regular commitments.

"That's a real driver of what's happening in the system," Reynolds said. He added, "We're not saying that all of these revocations should not have happened."

Reynolds also cited the lack of supervision for offenders who "max out" their sentences. Of the 896 such offenders released last year, only about one-fourth had earlier been out on parole that was later revoked. Of the remaining 657 released offenders who were never paroled, nearly two-thirds served terms for property, drug or nonviolent offenses. Without the programs or services that can accompany parole, these people leave prison more likely to commit new crimes, Reynolds said.

"This is a lost opportunity for supervised re-entry into society," he told the state leaders, serving as a working group to aid the study.

The working group's members include Parole Board Chairman Dennis Foreman, who said some offenders who max out their prison terms had earlier waived the right to parole hearings, perhaps to avoid the supervision that would accompany that release. Foreman also defended the rate at which the board both grants parole and revokes it, saying it remains proportionally the same as the number of inmates rises.

"When they don't conform with the supervision, we've got to take some steps to bring them back into the fold," Foreman said.

Besides analyzing mountains of data from West Virginia's courts and corrections systems, Reynolds and his team have been interviewing prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, law enforcement, victims' advocates, probation and parole officers, and religious leaders.

Sen. Bill Laird, a former county sheriff who has helped lead legislative efforts on this issue, also is a working-group member. He noted the huge scope of the problem the study seeks to address and questioned whether any one proposal will fix it.

"There has to be something that occurs here that is not just going to be a systemic tweak but, at least in my opinion, a pretty big shift in the way we look at our criminal justice system," said Laird, D-Fayette.

Other group members also touched on the problem's sprawling nature. Phil Morrison, executive director of the state Prosecuting Attorneys Institute, for instance relayed an anecdote about a coal operator seeking miners in Montana because West Virginia applicants can't pass the drug test.

West Virginia has the nation's second-highest rate for drug overdose deaths. Reynolds suggested taking a smarter approach to substance abuse screening and services for inmates.

Morrison and the Rev. Matthew Watts, a Charleston community leader, cited the growing "underclass" of convicted felons that employers won't hire. Watts estimated that they number 50,000 in West Virginia. He also urged action to make a difference for the thousands of youths who drop out of school or who end up in the juvenile justice system or foster care.

"Those are the streams that our filling our prisons," Watts said.

Steve Canterbury, a working-group member and administrative director for the West Virginia Supreme Court, said he will recommend that justices adopt a rule calling for a more comprehensive assessment of each defendant's risks and needs between conviction and sentencing as a result of Thursday's discussion.


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