WELLSBURG -- Proponents of alternative sentencing programs are looking to overhaul the way the state deals with lawbreakers, and in turn cut down on climbing regional jail costs and prison overcrowding. Jim Lee, a veteran probation officer in Brooke County, has spent the better part of two decades promoting diversion programs such as community service, day reporting centers and drug rehabilitation for convicted criminals. Now that the Legislature and counties across the state are struggling to deal with rising regional jail costs and exploding inmate populations, Lee's ideas might be starting to resonate.
"We've been in this madness, locking people up and giving them their just desserts, for 24 years," Lee said.
"I see the same people coming out (of jail) and then going right back in, and then I see their kids doing the same thing. We are never able to break the cycle."
Lee and other law enforcement experts still are trying to come to terms with statistics showing West Virginia has one of the lowest crime rates in the nation while maintaining one of the most rapidly rising incarceration rates. The state for years incarcerated fewer persons in relation to its population than other states. It has moved up the scale in recent years but still falls significantly below the national average and ranked 40th among states in 2004, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. But the growing number of men and women in jail is putting serious strains on state and county resources.
A bill advancing through the Legislature would shift some of the costs of housing inmates in regional jails from the counties to the state. Many counties exhaust their annual jail budgets in the span of a few short months. The measure would have the state pay 25 percent of those fees, which already have risen by $9 a day this year to $48.50 per inmate each day. If legislation passes, the state's share of regional jail costs will increase another $17 million.
The population at most jails has expanded rapidly in recent years, mostly because of overflow from state prisons that are too small and fall short of beds for more than 1,000 prisoners.
Lee is among those fighting to halt jail expansion and instead change the way people in the state are sentenced.
He's courting legislators, Gov. Joe Manchin and other state executives to buy into his philosophy that only the most violent offenders and sexual predators should be put behind bars.
He said he's seen criminals in his jurisdiction pay a more meaningful debt to society by staying in it.
"What is the crime rate going to look like in a few years if we don't change things?" Lee asked recently from his office outside Wheeling. "We sentence them to jail, but then when we let them out, we've taken away all their rights. They can't own a gun, they can't get a job and they can't go to college because they don't have any way to make money or get benefits." Lee hoped to thwart the failing trend in 2001 when he helped open the state's first day reporting center.
Offenders show up there each day for supervised work assignments instead of being incarcerated.
Since then, Lee has started the state's first drug and drunken driving court. He's working to open a new 10-bed residential center for parolees, and he's courting big employers such as Wal-Mart and Lowe's to start a supervised employment program for low-level offenders. Lee also is pushing for consolidation of the state's 17 day reporting centers, which are modeled after his. At the centers in Kanawha and surrounding counties, offenders show up to do tasks ranging from mowing lawns to painting government buildings.
Lee's plan for the state would have a network of just 12 or so reporting centers that would be more cost efficient and would allow for expansion of alternative sentencing programs like those that have seen success in the Northern Panhandle.
One recent morning, Lee and his team of about a dozen drug counselors and probation officers met to review the cases of 26 offenders recently sentenced through another of those programs, a five-county drug and DUI court. In Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties, people arrested on drug charges or driving under the influence can be referred to the alternative drug court by a police officer, a judge or even a family member. The court -- including a judge, a probation officer and counselors -- decides on an approach that will work best to break the person's addiction, get him cleaned up and back functioning in society.
Offenders are sentenced to so much community service each week, supervised work through the day reporting center and a heavy dose of counseling and addiction courses.
Some are sentenced to periods of home confinement, some have to wear ankle bracelets that monitor their alcohol intake and all of them have to submit to frequent urine tests.
Offenders who don't follow the rules -- those who show up with drugs or alcohol in their systems, stop attending addiction classes and counseling or become uncooperative -- are sanctioned. They can be fined or demoted in the program, and if things get bad enough they can be locked in jail for up to a week. Those who don't improve can be expelled from the program and then face the jail sentence they would have in a regular court.
Last week, problems arose with several offenders who were either still experimenting with drugs and alcohol or neglecting their treatment plans. One young man was fueling his alcohol addiction by drinking four bottles of Robitussin in between sessions each day.
Another offender occasionally would skip treatment when his college-age girlfriend would come home for the weekend.
One participant, who'd been repeatedly sanctioned, was given a final warning and spent five days in jail as punishment. If he continues acting out, he could be expelled from the program and his crime -- fourth-offense burglary -- could qualify him for five to 15 years in jail. "Sometimes that's all it takes to get an attitude adjustment," probation officer George Winter said. "He didn't like being confined, didn't like the food and just when he found a guy to sit and talk to, he found out that guy was in there for sexually abusing a child. He was mortified at the thought of being locked up with child molesters."
Challenges in the program often reach beyond trying to straighten out lawbreakers who might be hesitant to give up old habits. Providing transportation for criminals from their homes to day reporting centers sometimes several counties away can pose problems and often becomes an excuse offenders use to explain why they fail at rehab. Securing housing sometimes trips up even offenders who want to succeed in the program. Often, addicts have overstepped the boundaries of friends and family members who have provided a roof over their heads. Sometimesoffenders are living in crime-riddled housing projects or with other addicts, environments that are not conducive to recovery.
Sometimes the most daunting task for drug court and day reporting officials is just dealing with the scope of a person's drug problem. Last week, Lee and his staff were handed the case of a young woman addicted to heroin, the substance of choice these days for most of the offenders that come through the Wheeling-area alternative sentencing programs. This particular woman was in the worst shape many of them had seen, doing up to 10 bags of heroin a day.
"These are addictions that just don't get better in jail," Lee said. "We lose them so quickly when they have been incarcerated. Unless we give them help, they aren't going to get it."
The goal of the drug court and the day reporting programs is for offenders to finish sober, with a stable job or the skills they need to get one and a secure place to live.
In the past five years, about 650 people have been assigned to day reporting programs for work and rehabilitation.
About 230 of them have been expelled from the program for either repeatedly failing drug tests or breaking program rules. Most of those have wound up back in jail.
The Northern Panhandle's mental health court, which helps rehabilitate offenders with serious mental illness, has 150 participants right now. The drug and drunken driving court oversees about 36 non-violent offenders in the throes of addiction or working on recovery.
The process of graduating from the drug court program is a long one. There are three phases of rehabilitation that take a total of a year and require weekly to bi-monthly court appearances, along with imposed community service and counseling. A person then must submit to continued drug tests and less frequent rehabilitation sessions and stay clean for an additional six months to "graduate" from the program.
"All the issues are based on giving someone the tools to be successful, and then allowing them to be successful," Lee said. "They have more eyes on them than they would being in jail, but the goal is to give them self worth. That's ultimately what will lead to change."
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.