Can a New Study Stem West Virginia’s Prison-Population Growth?


Ten years ago, 900 convicted felons sat in West Virginia’s regional jails, waiting for a prison bed to open up. Today, there are more than 1,800. Ten years ago, the state Supreme Court urged legislators to reconsider sentencing laws and grant more parole. This March, House Republicans killed a bill that sought to start that process, citing leniency for criminals at the expense of public safety. The Charleston Gazette says a new study of the problem is under way by the Council of State Governments. Other studies have failed to solve it, and some corrections professionals have a hard time believing this time will be different. West Virginia led the nation in prison population growth between 2000 and 2009, even though its overall population grew only 2.5 percent during the decade.

Lawmakers and corrections officials have approved piecemeal fixes — building new jails, finding creative ways to add a few beds here and there, 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 reluctant to spend money on a system that many of their constituents don’t spend time thinking about. The problem grows, but incrementally, with little sense of urgency. And politicians hesitate to change sentencing laws for fear of appearing soft on crime — and thus vulnerable at re-election time. “If we want to be tough on crime, that’s an option,” says Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein, “but it comes at a cost.”

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