Capacity in regional jail gets attention
Published: Mar 22, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.--West Virginia officials are giving more attention to alternative sentencing as a way to deal with overcrowded prisons and jails. Currently, West Virginia's prisons have 6,500 inmates. That's 1,200 more than the system is designed to hold. Those excess inmates are then forced to stay at regional jails long term - something they weren't intended to do. Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said alternative sentencing could help. Doing so would reduce the amount of time inmates spend in jail, he said. This would mean shorter terms for nonviolent crimes, placing anyone who has been convicted of a drug-related offense into treatment programs, and allowing inmates to be put on home confinement. "We feel that 80 percent of people in the system have a direct addiction to a substance," Rubenstein said. "Seventy percent of them are nonviolent crimes." Providing treatment and counseling opportunities in a less secure setting to help inmates function in society when released is one way to deal with overcrowding issues, he said. "When I arrived in 1997 there were overcrowding issues," said Steve Canterbury, administrative director of courts in West Virginia. He was the executive director of the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority from 1997 to 2005. During that time, about $520 million was spent on new facilities, and in 2005, overcrowding was still a problem, he said. More than a dozen recommendations have been made to Gov. Joe Manchin to help fix the problem. One proposal involved building a 1,200-bed medium security prison. "But clearly we can't build our way out of this problem," Canterbury said. Monongalia Circuit Court Judge Russell Clawges said he believes treatment is the best way to help drug offenders stay out of prisons. Clawges has presided over the county's drug court since it opened in February last year. "Drug courts are designed to deal with people who are in the system because of addiction or who are in the system and addicted," he said. "All of those in our program have been convicted of felonies." The county's drug court is based on three factors: supervision, treatment and responsibility. Those going through drug court must be heavily supervised. Instead of monthly meetings with a probation officer, offenders visit them weekly. Treatment is administered at mandatory rehabilitation sessions three times a week. "Addiction has been classified as an illness, and like any long term illness, proper treatment is needed for recovery," Clawges said. Responsibility also is key, Clawges said. If the individuals are unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions, they will not get better, he said. A system of incentives and sanctions also are used as motivation to do well in the program. Incentives include restaurant gift certificates. Sanctions can vary from writing an essay to spending a week behind bars. Those participating in the drug court are kept on home confinement for a minimum of a year, although few complete the program in that amount of time. "The cost of drug court is much cheaper than staying at a penitentiary," Clawges said. Monongalia's drug court is the seventh of its kind in the state. WVU journalism students James Carbone, Karilynn Galiotos and Brian Young contributed to this report.