The state of West Virginia’s prison population averaged a growth of 73% from 2000 to 2010, costing the state $170 million. Since 2010, West Virginia has led the nation in annual prison population growth. As 75% of all inmates are serving their sentences due to drug related crimes, the spike in the number of inmates is due in large part to the opioid crisis. The opioid crisis has run rampant in West Virginia: One out of four residents is addicted and one out of every ten babies is born addicted to a controlled substance – primarily heroin. These ‘offenders’ are mentally ill, not dangerous; thus, they should be treated for their illness and not incarcerated for it. Offering rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration to these individuals would not only save bed space for legitimately dangerous prisoners, but would also save taxpayers money.
Starting in 2013, West Virginia implemented its first piece of criminal justice reform legislation by creating an earned time incentive for non-violent inmates and expanding drug court programs. In addition, $2 million in federal grant money was issued to fund two drug treatment programs: Quick Response Team and Turn Around. These programs are a collaborative effort with law enforcement, Marshall University, community organizations, and healthcare providers to increase access to treatment and expedite the response to overdoses. Quick Response Team responds to individuals who have overdosed within 72 hours, and Turn Around is a pilot program at the Western Regional Jail that identifies and assesses individuals convicted of misdemeanors who have re-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.
In 2015, West Virginia addressed its juvenile justice system. It passed a bill that keeps adolescents close to their families and focuses on lowering the juvenile recidivism rate. The reforms will result in 16% fewer youths being sent to jail or prison while saving taxpayers $20 million.
Additionally, lawmakers passed an expungement bill allowing ex-offenders convicted of a non-violent felony the opportunity to have their criminal record expunged by agencies in possession of their criminal records. Expungement allows ex-offenders to pursue employment opportunities to alleviate dependence on poverty programs and decrease the likelihood for recidivism.
West Virginia has also begun the process of bail reform in 2020, looking to release pre-trial inmates accused of certain misdemeanor crimes on their own recognizance. Bail reform efforts are effective in decreasing the strain on jails in the state and alleviating taxpayer responsibility.
These reforms demonstrate that West Virginia is committed to fixing its opioid and incarceration problems; however, there is still significant work to do to fix the criminal justice system.
Identification of legislation should not be considered an endorsement of support of, or opposition to, such bills.