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Lawmakers: West Virginia has No Choice but to Sort Prisoners Better

WV's prison population growing fast, but few on probation. From the Council of State Government Justice Center.
WV's prison population growing fast, but few on probation. From the Council of State Government Justice Center.
November 29, 2012

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Lawmakers studying West Virginia's prison overcrowding say the state has little choice but to do something about the issue. They say most likely that means trying to do a better job of sorting prisoners before they go in and after they come out.

State Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayetteville, says West Virginia is facing hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs if the state does not find a better way to deal with low-risk offenders. Laird, who was a longtime Fayette County sheriff, says the Legislature can't avoid it any longer.

"We will need to take corrective action in the upcoming session. We've reached a point where our state institutions are full and we have a backup in our regional jail system."

Some lawmakers argue the state needs to continue to take a tough-on-crime stance. Laird and others say keeping that up wouldn't actually make the state any safer.

The Council of State Government Justice Center has been researching the issue nationally and presenting information to interim legislative meetings in Charleston. Carl Reynolds, the center’s senior legal and policy adviser, says a number of states are finding themselves in the same position.

"No state has been able to afford locking up all the people they're mad at. States have to figure out how to sort out the ones they're genuinely afraid of and do something that's probably more effective but maybe a little less emotionally satisfying with the rest."

Reynolds says keeping low-risk offenders under supervision but out of prison can be done safely. He says high-risk offenders need to be watched more closely after they leave prison. Reynolds says both of those things would reduce overcrowding and save money.

"The good news is that we know more now about how to actually do that. Target them into the programs that they need and that they will respond to. You can make a pretty big dent in the problem."

Building a new prison would cost an estimated $200 million. Parole revocations are up by half in six years, costing the state an additional $170 million.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV