State officials are considering changes to how parole violators are handled as part of an in-depth study on the state's prison overcrowding problem.
About 38 percent of those incarcerated last year in the West Virginia prison system were sent to jail on parole or probation violations. Half of those violations were nonviolent or technical in nature.
During the Southern Legislative Conference in Charleston last week, officials from Oklahoma and North Carolina said parole violators were a key factor in their states' overcrowding crises.
Many technical violators in Oklahoma were being sent back to jail for one to two years, said Kris Steele, Republican speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Those multi-year jail sentences proved costly.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense, I'm embarrassed to tell you all this," Steele said.
David Guice, a former North Carolina prison official and state lawmaker, said his state was doing the same thing.
"What were we doing? We were putting people in our state prison system for the cost of about $28,000 a year for technical violations," Guice said.
Guice said 56 percent of new admissions to state prisons in 2009 were because of probation violations and 73 percent of those were because of technical violations like missing curfew or failing a drug screening.
Steel said Oklahoma officials decided low-risk probation violators could be better helped if they were sent to an "intermediate revocation facility" for a shorter time and to get treatment. Stays in those facilities are cheaper for the state.
West Virginia is currently working to find a solution to its own overcrowding problem.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, West Virginia's prison population has grown at a 5.7 percent annual rate over the past decade - the fastest rate of any state in the country. The national average was 1.7 percent over the same time frame.
Though the growth rate is fast, West Virginia's adult incarceration rate still ranks 32nd among all states.
But officials still want to curb growth to keep the incarceration rate in check.
State prisons are filled to capacity, forcing the Division of Corrections to house about 1,700 prisoners in regional jails. That overflow has pushed the regional jail system to its limit.
Unless something is done soon to curb growth, lawmakers will be forced to spend as much as $200 million to build a new prison somewhere in the state.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other state leaders enlisted the help of the Council of State Governments' Justice Center in June to launch a study on the matter.
The study will thoroughly analyze the state's criminal justice system and recommend solutions to curb incarcerations.
As part of the study, Justice Center officials have conducted an initial analysis of 2011 prison commitments to see how inmates are landing in jail.
According to that analysis, 51 percent of the 3,324 people sent to jail in 2011 were new inmates.
Twenty-three percent - 762 people - were being sent to jail for probation revocations. Another 15 percent - 490 people - were there for parole revocations.
Of those going back for parole or probation violations, more than half were going back for technical violations, such as failing a drug test or failing to find employment.
Data show 51 percent of parole violators and 58 percent of probation violators went back to jail for technical violations, the remaining violators were being sent back for new crimes.
Division of Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said, like Oklahoma and North Carolina, West Virginia could curb its prison population by reforming the way it deals with these technical violations.
But technical violators only represent about 700 of the state's 3,324 inmates. Focusing on them only will not solve the problem, Rubenstein said.
"When you look at the number of new commitments coming in over a year, we feel that we can cut into that number, but that's only part of the equation," Rubenstein said.
Rubenstein said broader reforms would still be needed.
But from a cost standpoint, Rubenstein said it makes sense to find some way to deal with technical parole violators in a community corrections setting rather than jail.
The state doesn't currently have any intermediate revocation facilities, but Rubenstein thinks they could be built at a modest cost.
"It'll come at some kind of cost, but I do feel that we can handle (technical violators) at that level at a cheaper cost and save ourselves from someone coming back into a $23,600-a-year prison bed," he said. "It will be well worth the effort."
The community-based facilities would work similarly to a work-release center, where inmates are given a place to stay while they establish a foothold in the community and begin to find employment.
If a parolee is able to find a stable home and work environment, he or she is much less likely to commit another crime, Rubenstein said. Sending someone back to jail over a technical violation often hampers the parolee's ability to do either.
"You're just taking them completely from the community and then you're starting at square one again," Rubenstein said. "It would behoove us and the individual, who hopefully will take advantage of (intermediate revocation facilities), to do things at that level."
The Division of Corrections is working to increase its number of community-based facilities.
On Monday, officials opened a 140-bed facility in Parkersburg that will house work-release and minimum-security prisoners.
Rubenstein said facilities like this one could serve as intermediate revocation facilities in the future. The division already has one facility open in Beckley and will have another work-release center open on Hansford Street in Charleston soon.
"We're doing the right thing here with these facilities," he said.
Results and policy recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment study are supposed to be late this year, Rubenstein said. While the report will be comprehensive, he said it would likely recommend community-based centers.
"We know it's the right thing to do and it will surprise me if it's not included in the report as well," Rubenstein said.