Americans ask a lot out of the country’s prison system.
Prison, of course, is a deterrent. The threat of time behind bars, in theory, is designed to prevent people from breaking the laws of the land.
Prisons are also designed to protect society, isolating those convicted of crimes away from law-abiding citizens the criminals could harm.
No matter how well the prison system serves in meeting those objectives, however, it’s not enough.
All but a handful of those sentenced will be released back into society. If prisons are nothing more than locations where convicts are isolated during their term in nothing more than an institution where they receive advanced instruction in crime from fellow inmates, the system fails.
You might as well put a revolving door out front. Inmates will complete their sentences and soon return, possibly after committing an even more serious crime.
West Virginia, statistics indicate, is doing a solid job in cutting down on recidivism.
Inmates released from West Virginia’s prison system, The Associated Press reported this week, are less likely to commit new crimes than those in nearly every other state.
Brad Douglas, director of Research and Planning for the state Division of Corrections, pegged West Virginia’s recidivism rate at 26.8 percent in 2004. A national study conducted with that year’s data ranks that rate the fourth-lowest among states, Douglas said. Just five states had rates lower than 30 percent, and the U.S. average was 43 percent, he told the Joint House-Senate Standing Committee on the Judiciary during a meeting in Charleston.
“I think that is a very positive light,” Douglas said.
The rate has since risen some and reached 30 percent in 2007, Douglas said. He attributed much of that to an increase in rate that parole is granted, from 33 percent to 53 percent.
The 30 percent figure reflects released inmates who ended up back in the system within three years. He noted that two-thirds of those returns were not because of new crimes, but because they had otherwise violated the terms of their release. Douglas also said that half of the recidivists returned within one year of release.
The division’s director of programs, Jennifer Ballard, credited her office’s work in this area. From schooling and vocational training to parenting classes and anger counseling, the programs aim to change behavior and improve an inmate’s prospects once released, she said. Ballard said the division’s residential substance abuse treatment program has been particularly successful.
“They’re held accountable for what they do 24-7,” she told lawmakers. “You’re not just sitting in a classroom for two hours and then going back out to population. You are actually held accountable by the staff and the peers.”
New arrivals are put through a battery of tests, such as I.Q., personality, sex offender, psychological and drug screens.
The division has also developed specialized programs for sex offenders, batterers and those who can trace their criminal background to an upbringing marked by domestic violence, she said.
An accelerated parole program, inaugurated in January, is tailored to help convicts get prepared for meetings with the parole board, she told the legislators.
“It seems like it helps these offenders focus on what they need,” Ballard said.
“I’m real proud of what we do here in West Virginia,” Ballard added. “We’re doing something right.”
That doesn’t mean there are no problems in the state’s system. Douglas said that West Virginia has the nation’s second-fastest growing prison population. Increasing by 4 percent annually, only Alaska is seeing a more rapid climb.
While West Virginia still has one of the nation’s lowest incarceration rates, the growth has meant that 1,700 people sentenced to prison for felonies remain in the state’s regional jails because of a lack of bed space in Division of Corrections facilities. The number of division inmates, including those stuck in jails, has grown by 200 since Jan. 1 to 6,881, Douglas said. He cited state figures projecting the prison-sentenced population to increase to 8,500 by 2016 and to 9,700 by the end of 2020.
Without additional bed capacity or change in trends, the backlog could reach 3,200 inmates in five years, Douglas said. Officials say 80 percent of the inmates are there for drug- or alcohol-related offenses.
“You don’t want to get a boiling pot that boils over by any means,” he said.
It’s indeed a challenge, one that would be even more significant without the measures keeping West Virginia’s recidivism rate low in comparison to the rest of the country.
Americans ask a lot out of the country’s prison system.
Time is now for Tomblin to support King Coal Highway
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., is asking Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to add the King Coal Highway project to West Virginia’s six-year highway improvement plan. It is a logical request, and one that Tomblin should act promptly on.
United effort to keep NASA in Fairmont is essential project
The high-technology sector is obviously vital to the economy of North Central West Virginia.
That’s why a strong, united effort to keep the NASA Independent Verification and Validation Program in Fairmont is absolutely essential.
COLUMN: Calling all readers: Be heard
I love to talk to readers.
I love to hear concerns they have about stories we’ve written, things they think should be included in the newspaper and things they think shouldn’t be.
Korean War veterans are deserving of a memorial
NEEDED: A total of $10,000 for the Korean War Memorial this year.
And a good man has been placed in charge of the funding. Charlie Reese, former president of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce, is now director of the Marion County Development Office. His task was to make a recommendation as to what steps are necessary to keep the project moving.
Roll up your sleeves, give blood and you can save lives
It takes up to 100 units of blood to save the life of someone who sustains life-threatening injuries in a vehicle accident.
We’re hoping that the number of people who come to Fairmont Senior High School on Friday for and American Red Cross blood drive will exceed that amount.
Vehicles and motorcycles must share the road safely
The days are long. The weather is superb. There’s plenty of leisure time in these lazy days of summer.
It’s the perfect time to take a long motorcycle ride.
It’s also the perfect opportunity for us to take the time to remind not only riders but drivers of the need to share the road. And we feel compelled to mention it because just within the month of July, there have been two motorcycle-versus-car accidents within the City of Fairmont alone — one with severe injuries sustained by the motorcyclist and the other with less serious injury.
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Distracted driving: It isn’t worth fine or a life
Today marks the day that police agencies from six states are joining forces to crack down on one thing — distracted driving.
And they will focus on that traffic violation for a solid week, with the stepped-up effort to curb distracted driving wrapping up on Saturday, July 26.
COLUMN: Are we people watchers or people judgers?
Let me tell you about my little friend Robby. Well, actually, it’s more about his family and especially his mom. I didn’t get her name. I heard Robby’s name quite a bit, though, during a trip home from Birmingham, Alabama.
I noticed the family in the Birmingham airport immediately. They were just the kind of family you’d notice.
Relish the rich bounty of state’s diverse, unique food traditions
This week, a group of federal officials on a three-day culinary tour of the state visited the Greenbrier Valley to find out what most of us here already know — we have a rich food tradition in West Virginia.
The group was made up of officials from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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