IMPROVING PUBLIC SAFETY
by A column by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin
For eight years, in Hancock, Brooke and Ohio counties, a change has been underway. It’s a change that has successfully taken root, turned lives around, and improved communities while fighting substance abuse and the crimes associated with addiction. The First Circuit Northern Panhandle Adult Drug Court was the first of its kind in West Virginia. Now, through Justice Reinvestment legislation that I proposed and the legislature passed, we’re building upon the court’s success in hopes of replicating it across the state to combat substance abuse-the leading cause of our prison overcrowding problem.
New drug courts are one piece of a comprehensive effort, involving all three branches of state government, to address our strained prisons and jails. Last year, I sought guidance from national justice system experts, state legislators and judges, along with law enforcement and community leaders to study why West Virginia’s prison population was one of the fastest growing in the country and, most important, to develop a research-based plan to address our most pressing concern, public safety. Together we learned that many offenders are released back into our hometowns with little or no supervision. We learned that offenders are most likely to re-offend, and end up back in jail, six months to a year after release from prison. We learned that, too often, those on parole or probation slip back into a life of substance abuse and crime.
The result of our study was Senate Bill 371, also known as Justice Reinvestment. With it we are making sure all inmates with violent convictions released from prison will be supervised in the community. And we’re holding probationers and parolees accountable for their actions-if they violate the rules, the punishment will be swift. We’re also creating a new sentencing option so that those who have a substance abuse problem can get the help they need to stop the cycle of abuse, crime, and incarceration. The financial savings of a decreased prison population will be partially reinvested in substance abuse treatment and prevention programs. All this and we’re taking the proven success of the First Circuit Northern Panhandle Adult Drug Court and, within the next three years, providing access to drug court for addicted offenders across the state.
Last year we set out with a simple goal: to improve the safety of our people and our hometowns while getting those with a substance abuse problem the help they need. We’re now taking the next step in our journey and I’m grateful for the many individuals who have contributed to our comprehensive plan to improve public safety. I hope the change experienced by the people of Hancock, Brooke, and Ohio counties, during the past eight years, will, in time, be experienced by all West Virginians.
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