SIX months into the Judicial Reinvestment Act — last year's prison reform — Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury gave the state Senate Finance Committee some good news.
"More people are being placed in drug courts or on probation," Canterbury said. "That's exactly what we hoped for."
State officials developed this program based on advice from experts at the nonprofit Council of State Governments. It emphasizes community corrections and rehabilitation.
The state now has 21 drug courts in operation covering 33 counties. Over the next two years, the judicial branch of government will open drug courts to cover the remaining counties.
The reform already has led to a reduction of 275 inmates from the prison system, bringing the state's prison population down to 6,800 convicted criminals. The reduction eased the backlog of felons sitting in regional jails awaiting space to open up in the state prison system. This also reduces pressure to expand the prison system.
"If we had to build another medium-security prison, it would cost $250 million," Canterbury said. "We have really high stakes for the success of Justice Reinvestment."
While diverting felons into drug courts and rehabilitation spares state taxpayers money, no system is perfect.
West Virginians should be careful with any reform. Twenty years ago, the state used its work-release system to house a few killers, two of whom murdered people while in that program. The murders brought reforms that came too late for two victims, Reginald T. Seamon Jr. and Virginia McCormick.
This reform is different in that it concentrates on criminals whose main problems are drug-related. The good news is that the judiciary is monitoring the situation to make sure the recidivism rate is low. The program appears to be off to a good start, which is encouraging.
The primary purpose of prison is public safety. Society locks away those who endanger their fellow citizens. If shorter sentences and drug treatment better protect the public, then by all means the state should do so.