Last updated: July 18. 2013 2:03PM - 85 Views
Debbie Rolen
Staff Writer

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Faced with a rising prison population, West Virginia sought the advice of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will introduce a bill containing many of the initiative’s suggestions.

The fact that the initiative has studied the problem in other states is reason for some confidence. Still, legislators should consider their options with eyes wide open.

The fastest way for the state to lower its prison population, it turns out, is to shorten some sentences, release some prisoners earlier, help them find housing — and supervise them for longer periods than is the case now.

The governor’s bill would release non-violent offenders six months early with six months’ supervision. The state also would release some violent offenders who have behaved well in prison six months early — but with a year’s supervision.

Right now, the experts say, the state is spending too much of its corrections resources on people who have committed property and drug offenses.

Another big contributor to prison populations is re-incarceration of parole violators for even relatively minor violations. In 2011, parole violators accounted for about 23 percent of new prison commitments.

The center also recommends allowing judges to sentence drug offenders and those thought to be at high risk of re-offending to substance abuse programs.

Well, OK. But to paraphrase a famous saying, commitment is the triumph of hope over experience.

The discussion focuses on theories of crime and punishment. But legislators should not forget the people who will pay the price if hopes prove too optimistic.

What is a “minor” violation? What is the success rate of drug treatment? What happens to crime rates?

Legislators should know. After all, incarceration is a fiscal issue. Crime is a public-safety, peace-of-mind, quality-of-life issue that affects households and neighborhoods all over the state.

Less expensive but less effective would not be the correct answer.

Distributed by The Associated Press

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