The Times West Virginian

Opinion

May 20, 2011

Low recidivism success story in West Virginia prison system

FAIRMONT — Americans ask a lot out of the country’s prison system.

Prison, of course, is a deterrent. The threat of time behind bars, in theory, is designed to prevent people from breaking the laws of the land.

Prisons are also designed to protect society, isolating those convicted of crimes away from law-abiding citizens the criminals could harm.

No matter how well the prison system serves in meeting those objectives, however, it’s not enough.

All but a handful of those sentenced will be released back into society. If prisons are nothing more than locations where convicts are isolated during their term in nothing more than an institution where they receive advanced instruction in crime from fellow inmates, the system fails.

You might as well put a revolving door out front. Inmates will complete their sentences and soon return, possibly after committing an even more serious crime.

West Virginia, statistics indicate, is doing a solid job in cutting down on recidivism.

Inmates released from West Virginia’s prison system, The Associated Press reported this week, are less likely to commit new crimes than those in nearly every other state.

Brad Douglas, director of Research and Planning for the state Division of Corrections, pegged West Virginia’s recidivism rate at 26.8 percent in 2004. A national study conducted with that year’s data ranks that rate the fourth-lowest among states, Douglas said. Just five states had rates lower than 30 percent, and the U.S. average was 43 percent, he told the Joint House-Senate Standing Committee on the Judiciary during a meeting in Charleston.

“I think that is a very positive light,” Douglas said.

The rate has since risen some and reached 30 percent in 2007, Douglas said. He attributed much of that to an increase in rate that parole is granted, from 33 percent to 53 percent.

The 30 percent figure reflects released inmates who ended up back in the system within three years. He noted that two-thirds of those returns were not because of new crimes, but because they had otherwise violated the terms of their release. Douglas also said that half of the recidivists returned within one year of release.

The division’s director of programs, Jennifer Ballard, credited her office’s work in this area. From schooling and vocational training to parenting classes and anger counseling, the programs aim to change behavior and improve an inmate’s prospects once released, she said. Ballard said the division’s residential substance abuse treatment program has been particularly successful.

“They’re held accountable for what they do 24-7,” she told lawmakers. “You’re not just sitting in a classroom for two hours and then going back out to population. You are actually held accountable by the staff and the peers.”

New arrivals are put through a battery of tests, such as I.Q., personality, sex offender, psychological and drug screens.

The division has also developed specialized programs for sex offenders, batterers and those who can trace their criminal background to an upbringing marked by domestic violence, she said.

An accelerated parole program, inaugurated in January, is tailored to help convicts get prepared for meetings with the parole board, she told the legislators.

“It seems like it helps these offenders focus on what they need,” Ballard said.

“I’m real proud of what we do here in West Virginia,” Ballard added. “We’re doing something right.”

That doesn’t mean there are no problems in the state’s system. Douglas said that West Virginia has the nation’s second-fastest growing prison population. Increasing by 4 percent annually, only Alaska is seeing a more rapid climb.

While West Virginia still has one of the nation’s lowest incarceration rates, the growth has meant that 1,700 people sentenced to prison for felonies remain in the state’s regional jails because of a lack of bed space in Division of Corrections facilities. The number of division inmates, including those stuck in jails, has grown by 200 since Jan. 1 to 6,881, Douglas said. He cited state figures projecting the prison-sentenced population to increase to 8,500 by 2016 and to 9,700 by the end of 2020.

Without additional bed capacity or change in trends, the backlog could reach 3,200 inmates in five years, Douglas said. Officials say 80 percent of the inmates are there for drug- or alcohol-related offenses.

“You don’t want to get a boiling pot that boils over by any means,” he said.

It’s indeed a challenge, one that would be even more significant without the measures keeping West Virginia’s recidivism rate low in comparison to the rest of the country.

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