Curbing drug abuse in West Virginia

Northern Panhandle judges and other law enforcement officials have every right to be proud of being “drug court” pioneers. At the same time, their effort raises a troubling question: Has it worked?

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was in Wellsburg last week for the symbolic signing of a new law aimed at reducing overcrowding in West Virginia prisons. The measure relies largely on curbing drug abuse, a major contributor to prison overcrowding.

While in the area, Tomblin, along with state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin and other dignitaries, attended a “graduation” ceremony for a class from the Northern Panhandle Adult Drug Court. The program allows selected non-violent drug offenders to get treatment rather than go to prison.

Tomblin praised the program in the First Judicial Circuit, which includes Brooke, Hancock and Ohio counties, noting it was the first of its kind in the state. The local program began handling cases in August 2005.

Part of the new law requires judicial circuits throughout the state to establish adult drug courts. The hope is the courts, coupled with other measures, can reduce the number of people sent to prison in the Mountain State.

We hope so. And there is no doubt – none at all – that the drug court approach is helpful. In some cases, it may well divert men and women from lives of crime and drug dependence to productive, happy roles in society.

But the First Judicial Circuit drug court has been in operation for nearly eight years. Yet during that time, drug-related crime in our area seems to have increased dramatically.

Again, drug courts are a good thing – certainly for graduates who really do turn their lives around. And coupled with other measures in the law to provide drug rehabilitation treatment, they probably will reduce incarcerations at least somewhat.

But drug abuse has become an epidemic in our state. Rehabilitation efforts may prove to be a drop in the bucket against a flood of drug abuse.

Tomblin and state legislators, then, need to monitor progress made through the new law carefully and objectively. If, within one or at most two years, the strategy is not reducing prison overcrowding noticeably, a different approach may be needed.