Sunday, February 17, 2013

West Virginia's 'Savings' from Pretrial Diversion Dubious

The problem with pretrial diversion programs is that projecting savings based on jail cost per inmate per day are flawed

Last month, backed by a study from the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments that found that about 43 percent of inmates in West Virginia's regional jail system are awaiting trial, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced a reinvestment initiative that called for lawmakers to shift $25 million into probation and day report systems in hopes of saving nearly five times that amount in prison and jail spending, reported The Charleston Gazette.

Part of recommendations included broader use of pretrial risk assessment programs, according to the Justice Center report. The study, however, made no mention of the pilot programs already in existence.

The problem with pretrial diversion programs is that projecting savings based on jail cost per inmate per day are flawed.  A correction facility that pays on average $50 per day per inmate will not realize any saving when one, two or even ten less inmates are incarcerated on a given day. 

There are fixed costs at correctional facilities.  The only way to realize savings would be to reduce personnel or 'moth ball' a portion of the facility.  This can happen only over time with a broad change in pretrial philosophy. An occasional reduction of a handful of inmates will not result in any meaningful reduction is costs.

The Gazette in conjunction with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York looked into exist pretrial diversion programs in West Virginia.

The state Division of Justice and Community Services funded a pilot pretrial program with a $300,000 grant, dispersing it evenly between Mercer, Wayne, Brooke, Greenbrier and Wood counties.

But while officials close to the pilots have lauded them as a success, little data exists to suggest that there has been a measurable impact on regional jail spending. In fact, since 2011, regional jail bills have risen in every pilot county except for one.

Pretrial officers have also shunned other statistics--like instances when released inmates fail to show up for court--that experts say generally serve as a standard in measuring the success of pretrial release programs.

On average, about 10 defendants a week are released through Cabell County's program--saving about $8,500 a day. That works out to more than $400,000 a year.

The problem is that the jail costs are still on the rise, reported the Gazette.

Near the end of 2012, Cabell County's monthly jail bill stood at about $330,000, up about $100,000 from when the program started in December 2009.

Even the Council of State Governments Justice Center who are helping implement West Virginia's Justice Reinvestment Initiative find the cost savings of pretrial diversion dubious.

Justice Center analyst Mark Pelka said that most of his group's recommendations to the governor focused on expanding risk assessment programs for post conviction felons so judges can make better decisions at sentencing.

"We don't have very much on pretrial in the justice reinvestment policy framework," Justice Center policy analyst Mark Pelka told the Gazette.

Pelka said the Justice Center will be advising lawmakers about pretrial release in the upcoming legislative session. Most of the focus, however, will be on lightening the burden in the state prison system, he said.

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