West Virginia has a problem.
And as recent history has shown, there is no simple solution.
In fact, the problem has been described by some officials as a “crisis of disturbing proportions.”
That crisis? Prison overcrowding.
Ten years ago, 900 convicted felons sat in West Virginia’s regional jails waiting for a prison bed to open up. Today, more than 1,800 are waiting in regional jails, which are largely intended to house inmates awaiting trial or serving sentences for lesser crimes.
In an effort to at least curb the issue, the state Supreme Court urged legislators a decade ago to reconsider sentencing laws and grant more parole. Those efforts were repeated this March, but House Republicans killed a bill that sought to start the process, opposing a provision they characterized as leniency for criminals at the expense of public safety.
It’s a problem that has led to lawsuits being filed and legislation being introduced. Reports have been written and rulings have been issued. Politicians and policymakers have debated what to do. The latest attempt to take a stab at the crisis is another study, with help from an independent body overseen by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments.
As The Associated Press has reported, West Virginia led the nation in prison population growth between 2000 and 2009, even though its overall population is aging and grew only 2.5 percent during the decade.
And while lawmakers and corrections officials have approved temporary fixes — building new jails, finding creative ways to add a few beds and supporting community-based programs that help keep people out of the system in the first place — a comprehensive approach consistently falls victim to politics. Lawmakers are simply reluctant to spend money on a system that many of their constituents don’t spend time thinking about.
What’s fueling the crisis? Experts estimate that at least 80 percent of inmates committed crimes somehow linked to drug or alcohol abuse, and about half of the total population are in for nonviolent offenses. The bill that died this spring would have added 200 beds to prison-based drug-treatment programs and given judges the power to reduce sentences for those who complete them.
Money is also a factor. In fiscal 2011, the Division of Corrections spent $158 million to house inmates who belonged in its custody at the 10 regional jails. That’s $20 million more than was spent just four years earlier.
With so many pieces to the puzzle, there is clearly no simple solution.
But perhaps some answers will be uncovered by a new study.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the nonpartisan Justice Center at the Council of State Governments, is scrutinizing West Virginia’s public safety policies from top to bottom. The agency did the same thing in 16 other states, including neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania.
A critical component is bringing a “neutral outside perspective” to detailed data. The team from the Justice Center will also help legislators reconcile how the criminal justice system functions in theory — from the perspectives of police, prosecutors, prison guards, victims and more — with how it functions in reality.
So while other studies have failed to solve the problem — some corrections professionals even have a hard time believing this time will be different — we are encouraged by the fact that officials are taking another look.
Will this study be any different from past failed attempts in West Virginia? Will it help shed a brighter light on this “crisis of disturbing proportions”?
We are hopeful that a solution will emerge.
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