CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- By July 2016, all West Virginia counties will be required to participate in a drug court program and provide alternative, treatment-based sentences for certain individuals convicted of drug-related crimes.
The good news is, it works. About 20 percent of offenders who have gone through drug courts nationwide have committed new crimes, as compared to 80 percent for those who experienced traditional incarceration.
But it usually takes years for counties to establish drug courts. Now, county leaders have three years to comply with state law.
The new requirement is part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's prison overcrowding bill, which was passed during the regular legislative session last month.
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, amended the bill in the House Judiciary Committee to include a mandatory statewide expansion of drug courts by July 2014.
Members of the House Finance Committee later extended that deadline to 2016 at the urging of court officials, including state Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury and Kanawha drug court judge Jennifer Bailey.
"We would have been a failure if we would have tried to do it in a year," Canterbury said.
Canterbury said the Supreme Court now is beginning "casual discussions" with state circuit judges. He said the drug court expansion is among the topics to be discussed during a statewide judicial conference in Bridgeport this week.
West Virginia currently has 14 drug courts covering 30 of its 55 counties.
Canterbury said some counties have avoided starting drug courts because judges there did not support the program or county officials did not believe they had adequate services to operate it successfully.
Now there is no choice.
"Will they do it with enthusiasm? Probably not," Canterbury said. "Will that get in the way of outcomes? A little bit."
Canterbury said he's confident local officials' attitudes toward drug courts will change as they begin to see the success of the programs. But before that can happen, counties have to get their drug courts up and running.
"It's not going to be easy," he said.
He said at least 20 West Virginia counties have no access to drug cessation programs, counselors or any other drug treatment programs.
"That's the first hurdle, to figure out how we can get those services provided," he said. "That sounds simple enough to most hard-working West Virginians. But if you don't have a driver's license, and you've got a drug problem so if you're given bus fare money you might not make it to the bus . . ."
He said counties would either have to partner with private health care providers or figure out a way to share services with other counties.
Canterbury said the state couldn't set up carbon-copy drug court programs throughout the state, however, because different counties have different problems and drug courts must reflect those issues.
Programs in the state's Northern Panhandle have some access to public transit, which helps get offenders to their treatment facilities and other appointments. West Virginia's southern counties have almost no public transportation.
Bailey helped found Kanawha County's drug court four years ago. She said for drug courts to work, counties also must have a working community corrections system already in place.