A special commission could soon be studying West Virginia’s correctional system with the goal of keeping more people out of prison.

The idea came from a public safety summit earlier this month that tried to address West Virginia’s growing inmate population. The state’s estimated 6,000 inmates already exceed prison capacity and the number is expected to surpass 8,000 by 2012.

“Certainly we acknowledge we must do something about it,” said Matt Turner, spokesman for Gov. Joe Manchin. “This is something we will move forward with.”

Manchin is expected to create the commission that would be charged with reviewing and recommending a host of alternatives to how West Virginians are sentenced and confined.

New projections show West Virginia’s prison population is growing faster than previously anticipated and a new state penitentiary will be necessary soon. But whether a second or third is needed depends on what the commission can recommend, said First Circuit Judge Martin J. Gaughan, who presides over circuit courts in Hancock, Brooke and Ohio counties.

Gaughan helped create the state’s first drug court, which seeks to treat offenders who also have substance abuse problems. State statistics show that 80 percent of inmates have a drug or alcohol problem, but only 20 percent were charged with a drug-related crime.

A drug court seeks treatment for abusers rather than sending them to prison where they may not receive rehab, said Gaughan, who attended the summit.

“As a country we have grown up with punishment is putting a person in a penitentiary. If we do less, we are not punishing a person,” he said. “It’s not so much about punishment, it’s about rehabilitation.”

The drug court program is now in two other circuit court districts, and Gaughan said a special commission could recommend that it be expanded statewide as a way to reduce costs.

“The Department of Corrections is trying to do the same thing, but it’s more expensive to do it in a penitentiary,” he said. “If they can get rehabilitation, why take up a penitentiary bed?”

State Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said a commission has potential because the executive, legislative and judiciary would be involved.

“I’ve been talking for years that I felt we weren’t going to make any headway discussing this issue until we had all three branches,” he said. “We can’t build our way out of this.”

A 1,200-bed penitentiary could cost at least $200 million and take several years to site and build.

“We need to make sure we keep the baddest of the bad guys in jail,” said Senate Government Organization Chairman Ed Bowman, D-Hancock. At the same time, the state needs to look at reforming some sentencing laws to make sure not everyone ends up in a prison, he said.

The Hancock County Democrat, who attended the summit, agreed that a new prison will be needed, but it will be a year or two before action is taken. In the meantime, the Legislature can start reviewing the various laws to determine where modifications can be made.

It’s not clear how the proposed commission would operate, but what is clear is the state doesn’t have enough information to make good decisions about what is needed to reform the system.

Data collection is “really weak” and the state needs more information on why people commit crimes and sentencing structures, said Joe Thornton, deputy secretary for the state Military Affairs and Public Safety.

The goal is to obtain better information and then evaluate it.

“I think you’ll see interest in this,” he said. “The bell, if you will, is really going off now.”

Turner did not have a timetable for when Manchin would create the commission. But, the administration will wait to see what the commission recommends before making proposals on dealing with corrections issues and whether to build a new penitentiary, he said.

As the person responsible for the state’s correctional system, Rubenstein sees the commission as an attempt to get the right people at the table so the state can move forward.

“I think it would be sad if we just held the symposium and nothing else was done,” Rubenstein said.

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