The Times West Virginian

Local News

January 25, 2009

Running out of room

Drug courts one option in reducing prison overcrowding

FAIRMONT — As in many other states, the prison population in West Virginia is increasing quickly.

Although violent crimes are on the decline, the population of West Virginia’s prisons is quickly outgrowing the capacity of the state’s facilities, according to Joe Thornton, deputy secretary of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which is the agency that oversees the Division of Corrections.

Currently the state has room for 5,000 prisoners in state prisons. However, there are now 6,200 inmates who have been sentenced to terms in state prisons, Thornton said. That means there are 1,200 prisoners who should be confined to state prisons but are instead sitting in regional jails awaiting transfer to prisons when a bed opens up.

“It’s a matter of perspective, but I think we’re at a crisis level right now,” Thornton said. “And now were running out of space in the regional jails, too.”

And the problem is likely to get worse. According to Thornton, the number of those sentenced to serve terms in a state prison is predicted to rise to around 8,000 by 2012.

Gov. Joe Manchin has appointed a commission to study the overcrowding issue, Thornton said, and there are several solutions being discussed to deal with the overcrowding problem.

One of the possible solutions to the problem, and one that counties in the state are beginning to look at closely, is establishing drug courts. Drug courts are designed for non-violent offenders convicted of drug-related crimes, said Linda Richmond Artimez, director of mental hygiene for the West Virginia Supreme Court.

A criminal is placed in the drug-court system by a judge and is required to undergo treatment for addiction, Artimez said. The goal is to get the offender to change their lives and stay out of the criminal-justice system.

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