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New approaches to incarceration warranted

Aug. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

The harsh reality of overcrowded prisons, fueled by growth in the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses, has caught up with another government agency.

Many states, including West Virginia, have been struggling with the problem for years and have acted to relieve the pressure on their packed corrections facilities. Now, the federal government has acknowledged that it faces the same issue and is planning steps to address it.

This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many non-violent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. He also said he will work with Congress to pass a law that will give federal judges more leeway in sentencing instead of being bound by the mandatory minimums that came into being when the government declared a war on drugs three decades ago. Some in Congress appear ready to work on revamping the sentencing guidelines.

The war on drugs and the related stiff sentences have contributed to an 800 percent growth in the federal prison population since 1980. Federal prisons now hold more than 219,000 inmates, or about 40 percent over their intended capacity. And nearly half of those prisoners were convicted of drug-related crimes.

The attorney general said he also wants to see people convicted of low-level offenses diverted to drug treatment and community service programs. In addition, he called for expanding a current program that allows the release of some elderly, non-violent offenders.

The strategies spelled out by Holder mirror the kinds of steps many state governments have taken, and they make sense in light of the current realities. In addition, the approaches acknowledge that offenders shouldn't simply be convicted, then "warehoused and forgotten about," as Holder put it. In other words, the corrections system should place more emphasis on the "correct" part of its supposed mission and offer offenders who pose no violent threat a chance to turn their lives around.

That is part of the rationale behind prison reforms approved in West Virginia earlier this year. Those reforms include allowing six-month early supervised release terms for non-violent offenders, use of a research-supported method to assess an offender's needs and risks, and expanding the drug court system to all 55 of the state's counties. Drug courts, which involve addiction treatment and strict supervision, have been deemed effective in reducing the number of repeat offenders. The main impetus for the increased attention is that the Mountain State's prisons and regional jails are filled beyond capacity and the state wants to avoid the expense of building more prisons.

Of course, a key component for these approaches to work -- whether on the state or federal level -- is that sufficient resources must be made available to offer adequate treatment and close supervision. The stated goal of reducing prison populations by reducing recidivism won't be met if eligible offenders don't receive the proper attention.

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