As the three-day interim session of the West Virginia Legislature began Monday morning, the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary met to receive an update on the Justice Reinvestment Act in the state.
With the prison populations rising and an estimated $200 million slated for construction and $83 million for operations projected for 2014-2018 to account for the increase, the state partnered with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to research options to reduce that spending and increase public safety. From the partnership SB 371 was created and passed in 2013.
Although not all of the policy in the legislation has been implemented, reports already indicate positive results.
"It's been a pleasant surprise that we've seen a decline [in prison population] much more rapidly than first indicated," Jim Rubenstein, Commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Corrections said. "All of Senate Bill 371 has not been implemented so I think it's very encouraging."
According to the WVDOC statistics, the overall inmate population decreased by 3.5 percent in FY2014.
Part of the strategy in the legislation to decrease sentenced inmate population includes policy changes by the state Parole Board which have lead to more releases from WVDOC custody, increased use of graduated sanction for parolees in lieu of revocation and a slower annual increase in the number of commitments from Circuit Court, possibly due to the increased use of the graduations sanctions.
"Instead of getting them in $26,000 per year prison beds, it gives the opportunity to work with those individuals who they haven't committed additional or new crimes," Rubenstein said. "We have a high percentage of individuals who have substance abuse, alcohol, drug related problems."
Stein said these individuals are still under supervision --just not within a prison-- and are mostly hard-working, good people but are different when dealing with addictions. Part of addressing public safety when dealing with these situations is strengthening Community Correction programs.
"It makes them very viable for the Parole Board to parole somebody even before they've completed some programs withing the Division of Corrections that they can complete in a community based program," Rubenstein said. "It straightens those programs, puts a real consistency across the board."
Ultimately, Rubenstein said the goal of the initiative is to turn the prison population into lawful, contributing members of society.
"Ninety some percent of the individuals are going to come back into society at some point or another," he said. "We take our role very serious in preparing them to come back and be successful, and reduce recidivism, and that they don't re-offend, and that they don't come back and they become law-abiding, tax-paying citizens."
As more initiatives of SB 371 are implemented, Rubenstein projects more success.
"I'll be surprised if we don't see some very positive results from 371 and these initiatives, especially compared to years ago when there was that discussion of 'Oh, are we going to have to build a new prison?' Right now, I don't even see that as even being an issue of concern because we're making strides in the right areas."