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Governor Tomblin Highlights Progress, Success of Justice Reinvestment Initiative

Press Release

Location: Charleston, WV

Good afternoon.

Thank you for the opportunity to share with you the progress West Virginia has made through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Before the Council of State Government's Justice Center and the PEW Center on the States arrived in West Virginia in 2012, the growing problem of prison overcrowding was impossible to ignore. Between 2007 and 2012, West Virginia's prison population grew by 20 percent. Estimates showed in five years a projected 1,400 additional offenders would break our existing system and would require the construction of at least one new prison facility at an estimated cost of $200 million. This $200 million was in addition to the funds the Division of Corrections would need to operate.

In a time when we were faced with tightening our budgets, we had no data to prove the number of people incarcerated in our state actually made West Virginians any safer. We knew there was a problem. West Virginia's substance abuse crisis was driving our prison population higher from actual drug use to related property crimes committed in an effort to support drug habits.

Our projections showed a significant increase in drug-related offenders would continue to overwhelm our prison system and we needed an approach that focused on common sense solutions and consensus. We needed a research-driven approach based on the facts. We needed data to analyze the causes of prison overcrowding and to develop a bipartisan solution. With this in mind, West Virginia embraced the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

With bipartisan support from the executive, legislative and judicial branches of West Virginia's government, we assembled a diverse working group of stakeholders and policymakers with experience in the West Virginia criminal justice system. CSG's Justice Center provided key data and research and helped our working group understand the issues and develop a comprehensive solution.

Our working group identified several facts that caused prison overcrowding including inconsistent standards for revocation of probation and parole, lack of coordinated resources to prepare nonviolent offenders for parole, inmates were released with without any supervision, and a glaring need for community-based substance abuse resources tailored to West Virginia.

Based on our working group's final recommendations, I introduced the West Virginia Justice Reinvestment Act during the 2013 legislative session. This comprehensive piece of legislation was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support. The goals of the Justice Reinvestment Act in West Virginia are to strengthen community-based supervision and improve the use of risk assessments to ensure no inmates with violent histories are released without supervision and to invest in drug courts and other community-based treatment options for substance abuse.

Our mission did not end with successful legislation. Throughout the past year, we have worked diligently to take actions that will help us meet the goals of our Justice Reinvestment Act. We are working to strengthen parole and probation capacity and effectiveness, develop the use of graduated sanctions for probation and parole violations, improve information sharing and coordination, and provide more community-based resources to treat substance abuse and mental health issues.

During the implementation phase of justice reinvestment, CSG Justice Center has continued to provide us with assistance to develop policies and training, analyze data trends, and coordinate inter-branch and inter-agency implementation efforts. I am extremely grateful for the continued support of the Justice Center. With CSG's help, we are making justice reinvestment a reality in West Virginia. I believe we are moving steadily in the right direction, and data we have supports that belief.

Since I signed West Virginia's Justice Reinvestment Act, we have had a 5% reduction in our prison population. In April 2013, we had nearly 7,100 prisoners in our state. Last Thursday, that figure was down to 6,743. We have reduced overcrowding at our regional jail facilities by nearly 50%. In April 2013, we were 1,746 inmates over capacity. Last week, that figure had dropped to 885. Today, we have more than 1,000 fewer people in our prisons than what was projected just a few years ago. Without these changes, we expected to have more than 7,800 inmates in West Virginia prisons, compared to today's total of 6,743.

In West Virginia, our message is clear. If you commit a crime in the Mountain State, you will get caught, you will do your time, and we will take reasonable, responsible steps to rehabilitate you and give you every opportunity to become a productive member of society, if that's a step you are willing to take. But, there is still more work to be done.

We have continued our efforts to put into place innovative solutions to help reduce re-offense rates by supporting new workforce training programs including private sector support from West Virginia's business and labor communities, assisting with appropriate housing to make transitions easier, and helping to ensure access to community-based substance abuse treatment for those released from prison through Medicaid expansion. Three weeks ago, I announced more than $1.2 million in reinvestment funding to support our efforts to fight substance abuse. This grant funding will fund treatment facilities and services throughout the state including a much-needed 60 to 100 bed facility in rural southern West Virginia. This funding is the first step in our plan to reinvest money to fight substance abuse in the Mountain State. By identifying and putting common sense solutions in place, we are protecting public safety and our state's finances at the same time.

I hope other states will consider the justice reinvestment model to take a "smart on crime" approach to prison overcrowding and public safety. I would be happy to talk with any state interested in this data-driven path toward reform and I hope our lawmakers here in Washington will continue to fund the justice reinvestment initiative to make our communities a safer place to call home.

Thank you.

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