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'Pandemic of addiction' behind big rise in Putnam jail costs

WINFIELD, W.Va. -- Before West Virginia's prison overcrowding bill passed in April, Mark Sorsaia and other prosecuting attorneys from around the state gathered in Charleston to discuss the implications of the law.

Sorsaia, Putnam County's prosecutor, said that in the course of debating the bill, several people came to a conclusion: "We should be putting people in jail that we're afraid of, not the ones that we're mad at."

For Sorsaia, that answer wasn't sufficient.

"I said, 'There's a third category. We have the people we're afraid of, who are going to jail, we have the people we're mad at, that we should consider whether they need to go to jail and whether that's in society's best interest, but there's a third group. This is the group that's driving prison overcrowding and skyrocketing jail costs. It is the people we are putting in jail and prison because, if we don't, they're going to kill themselves.'

"It's an entirely new dynamic of this business."

The number of felony prosecutions in Putnam County has risen roughly 20 percent since 2010, and the county's juvenile prosecutions are up 25 percent, Sorsaia said. Those numbers have contributed to an increase in the "jail bill," the taxpayer funds allocated to the criminal justice system for Putnam County. The bill, too, has risen steadily over the past three years -- from $1.1 million two years ago to $1.4 million last year to $1.7 million now.

The rise in the jail bill and arrests in the county are partly the result of what Sorsaia calls a "pandemic of addiction" -- a steady rise in the number of drug-related offenses in the county and across the state.

"Putnam County is not really any different than any other county, but we have been hit hard with the problem of addiction," he said. "My frustration as a prosecutor is that it's being considered a criminal justice problem, but quite frankly, the criminal justice system is really a victim of the overall problem of addiction."

Sorsaia said many of the nonviolent crimes he sees -- including larceny, burglary and forgery -- are connected to addicts trying to feed their addiction, and many times, the only way to break the cycle is a conviction.

"With addiction, it's a multi-faceted thing because, not only are they engaging in crime, but they're destroying their lives," he said. "They're destroying their health, and they're on this frenzy of drug abuse, and you see them killing themselves. It's the 20-year-old kid who's living under a bridge, dealing with drug dealers and breaking into outbuildings and stealing weed eaters for their next fix."

When the son of one of Sorsaia's friends tested positive for meth and was brought before him, he said calling the father felt more like giving a medical prognosis than talking about possible felony charges.

"I called him and I said, 'I'm going to talk to you as a father and not as a prosecutor. Your son is testing positive for methamphetamine. He has an addiction. This is not about him going to jail, this is not about him being a convicted felon. This is about whether or not your son is going to live,'" Sorsaia said.

Putnam County has instituted a number of diversion programs geared toward rehabilitating offenders, including home confinement and the Day Report program. There was one full-time employee in charge of diversion programs when Sorsaia began prosecuting there in the 1980s. Today, there are 15 full-time employees in the Winfield area who are solely dedicated to managing these programs.

"I think the diversion programs do help to keep people out of jails and prisons, as well as lower the recidivism rate," Sorsaia said. "The painful reality is, there is a specific percentage of people in the diversion programs that can't follow the rules because their addictions are so great."

The problem of crippling addiction could not be more apparent to Jamey Hunt, director of the Day Report program in Putnam County.

"The problem I'm seeing, not just in Putnam County but statewide -- probably nationwide -- [is] there's not enough beds to put these people in, at this point," Hunt said. "That's where the justice system runs into a funnel-like roadblock. We're trying to take 10 lanes of addicts and funnel them into one lane of treatment, and there's a bottleneck effect."

The Day Report program offers partial-release and probationary-offenders' services to reduce the chances of repeat offenses. Hunt said his department deals with 90 to 100 cases at any given time and that many of those cases are directly or indirectly drug related, with an increased prevalence of prescription-medication abuse.

Hunt said many factors contribute to the problem of abuse and trying to deal with it, including the extremely addictive nature of prescription pills, methamphetamine and other popular drugs, as well as the wait for available inpatient treatment centers. The nearest inpatient treatment center to Putnam County is in Huntington and, according to Hunt, the wait for an available spot can take up to six weeks -- too much time for a struggling addict.

"Some of the people we're seeing don't have the best jobs in the world or great insurance or much money, and they can't pay for treatment. So we're telling them to get treatment. How? Where? That's the thing," he said. "We'll even arrange for them to get treatment, and it will be a four- to six-week waiting period, because we're at the mercy of people who accept charity care. Four to six weeks, in an addict's life? You're talking four to six hours, maybe a day, before they're 'jonesing.'"

For Hunt, the increased number of prescription-pill addicts is especially troubling, because unlike methamphetamine or heroin, which can be produced in the home, prescription medication cannot be made in a clandestine drug lab.

"How far does society have to fall before we get really serious with where these are coming from? And where these are coming from are doctors," Hunt said. "It's the only place they can come from. You can't make an opiate at home. So how do we regulate it? How do we make it more stringent? A lot of time, effort and resources probably need to go into that. But how much time, effort and resources are going into fixing it down the street versus trying to stop the supply?"

Treatment is still a major hurdle for the judicial system, according to Sorsaia, who said the current protocol creates an entire sector of society made up of convicted felons who can't find employment or support and return to drug abuse after leaving the prison system.

"Until we deal with drug addiction, we are not dealing with drug addiction," he said. "I would like to see a community-based treatment system for every county in the state where anyone with an addiction can say, with confidentiality, that they have an addiction and get community-based outpatient treatment that's effective.

"Right now, that community-based treatment center is the Putnam County Judicial Building."

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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