This issue brief was written for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy by Brian Elderbroom. Elderbroom is the founder and president of Justice Reform Strategies, a consulting firm providing policy, communications, and management support to organizations committed to improving the criminal justice system. He is a national expert on sentencing and corrections policy with more than 17 years of experience helping states adopt and evaluate reforms to reduce jail, prison, and community supervision populations.
West Virginia has an incarceration crisis. From 2010 to 2020, West Virginia was one of only four states to increase its incarceration rate and there are nearly 3,000 more people in jail or prison today than a decade ago.
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This rapid growth in incarceration has continued unabated during the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating dangerous overcrowding in West Virginia’s regional jails and state prisons and contributing to the deadly spread of the virus among incarcerated people, corrections officials, and their families.
A key contributor to West Virginia’s high incarceration rate is the large number of prison admissions that result from violations of probation or parole supervision (revocations). In 2020, nearly half (45 percent) of prison admissions resulted from a revocation of community supervision and the vast majority were for technical violations that did not involve a new crime such as failing a drug test or missing a meeting with a probation or parole officer.
Revocations continue to be a major driver of prison admissions in West Virginia despite policy changes that have been adopted to reduce costly and ineffective prison terms for technical violations of supervision. While the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2013 (SB 371) likely helped slow explosive prison population growth, and led to significant new investments in community-based substance use disorder treatment, considerably more needs to be done to reduce revocations and keep people out of jail or prison for simply breaking the rules of supervision.
Fortunately, there is considerable evidence and broad consensus on both sides of the political aisle that West Virginia can build on SB 371 to reduce crime and incarceration. In this brief, we further examine the role that revocations play in West Virginia’s incarceration crisis and recommend data-driven reforms that have been supported by bipartisan political majorities and proven to safely reduce incarceration in other states.
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