The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 9, 2012

Lawmakers hear alarming prison data

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

— West Virginia suffers the fourth fastest-growing inmate rate in America and some municipal police aren’t helping matters by hauling folks off to jail instead of writing citations.

That was one observation Monday by Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy adviser for the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, working on West Virginia’s prison crowding.

Reynolds told the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority he often has heard officials say police in some cities are inclined to make arrests rather than write citations as a means of getting more overtime pay, or a desire to throw the costs onto counties.

“That is anecdotal information, not data,” he emphasized.

Yet, the Austin, Texas, resident said he has heard this assessment on several occasions by county commissioners and other officials.

“So it’s more than anecdotal,” Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, said.

“It has to do with big cities that kind of dominate counties,” Reynolds said, noting that Huntington and Wheeling had been mentioned.

“It seems like some municipal police officers have an incentive to take people to regional jails instead of citing them when they could cite them,” he said.

“They have both a personal incentive in terms of racking up some overtime, from what I’ve been told, and an institutional one of working for the city and not wanting to cost the city money, but the county.”

Another panelist, Delegate Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, said media reports in Huntington lend “strong” support to this complaint that police there were taking some people to jail unnecessarily.

West Virginia’s 10 regional jails already are overburdened, absorbing some 1,800 state-sentenced inmates.

Reynolds suggested the state focus on people who are more likely to re-offend once they are released on parole.

“You have to actually change the way that people think and act, and you really can do it right and undo criminal thinking,” he said.

Aided by Justice Center policy analyst Megan Grasso, he said that 25 percent of West Virginia’s convicts are in regional jails, awaiting transfer, contrasted with a national figure of 5 percent.

Drugs play a major role in the criminal problem in an era that finds West Virginia with the second highest rate of fatal overdoses, he said.

In fact, 54 percent of new commitments last year were for drugs and property crimes, he noted, and commitments to the system are outpacing releases.

Between 2007 and 2011, there were 2,500 parole revocations, 2,400 for probation and 600 others were sent back for violations in community corrections programs, Reynolds said.

“Recidivism is costing West Virginia money as we speak,” he said.

“We’re not saying you shouldn’t or can’t revoke people when you put people on supervision. There has to be a potential consequence. We do see this as an area where we might be able to make some headway.”

Reynolds encouraged the lawmakers to employ risk assessment to identify those inclined to become repeat offenders, saying this element is lacking in both pre-trial and sentencing.

“Risk reduction is targeting programs, interventions to lower the risk to fix people to the extent that you can keep them from thinking like criminals, keep them from hanging around criminals and keep them from acting like criminals,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said West Virginia is no different than other states when it comes to repeat offenders.

“It’s the numbers game,” he said.

“If 100 people are on supervision anywhere, 50 percent are going to get arrested within a year. That’s just what happens. Pick any place in the country. Fifty percent. But you don’t know what 50 percent.”

Studies have shown that those considered high-risk actually have a smaller tendency to return to prison, he said.

Reynolds told the panel that he plans a follow-up session of presenting more data, then a final meeting to pose some possible corrective policies.

“All this leading into February, hopefully, with a bill drafted that reflects those options,” he added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com