The Times West Virginian


June 17, 2014

New thinking can help state break the cycle of drug abuse and prison

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is justifiably proud of the quick success of his Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which in just two years has eased prison overcrowding in West Virginia by reducing the number of inmates in the state’s penal facilities.

The purpose of the concept was to strengthen community-based supervision and fine-tune risk assessments to weed out violent offenders — who need to be behind bars — from those who pose little risk of violent behavior. We think it is a successful start.

West Virginia has lagged behind other states in attacking its prison overcrowding problem and the massive funding it siphons out of the state’s budget.

It’s easy to say we should lock up everybody convicted of a crime and keep them in prison until they learn the error of their ways. But the real world is not so simple.

The idea of alternative programs such as establishing community corrections boards and other groups that determine risk assessments helps judges and the court system to determine whether those convicted or those awaiting trial can benefit from alternatives to a jail cell.

These can be drug treatment programs, or home confinement with an ankle monitor, or counseling. These may not satisfy a thirst for vengeance, but they are practical attempts to address problems that will not be solved by throwing more money at the state’s correctional facilities in order to lock up more people.

Since last year, the governor said last week in Washington, West Virginias prison population has been reduced by almost 5 percent, and overcrowding by 50 percent.

The state’s prison population is about 6,743 inmates, compared to projections that by this time we would have 7,800 inmates. As we know too well in southern West Virginia, drug offenses and the related property crimes that fund drug purchases are the primary drivers behind the prison population in the state.

It is a scourge that shows no sign of slowing. But drug treatment programs and counseling do show promise and have had success, and it is the right thing to offer these options to the right people who have been caught in the web of drugs.

The problem with drugs that we have in West Virginia now does not mean it has to continue at its current level forever.

As Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner has said, we need to focus on anti-drug education in our schools at the elementary level, to show our children they don’t have to become a “lost generation.” We need to coach kids that their lives do not have to follow the path of their older brothers and sisters, or cousins or aunts and uncles, into the pit of drug abuse.

Earl Ray Tomblin has shown us that creative new ideas and ways of dealing with those convicted of crimes can work to reduce our prison population and provide alternatives to those who are most likely to benefit. Some may criticize this as being soft on crime.

We see this as the kind of new thinking that can help us break the cycle of drug abuse and prison, one inmate at a time.

— The (Beckley) Register-Herald

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