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Editorial: Effort to reduce prison crowding off to good start in first months

Nov. 22, 2013 @ 09:59 AM

In the early going, at least, new strategies to ease West Virginia’s prison and jail crowding crisis appear to be working.

The key barometer of that, of course, is the number of inmates housed in the state’s prisons and jails, and the trend is going in the right direction, according to a representative of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Now it becomes a matter of seeing whether the approaches continue to yield dividends — and without unpleasant consequences.

In April, the Legislature passed and Tomblin signed a law called the Justice Reinvestment Act. That came in response to a crowding situation that saw all the state’s prisons at capacity and the overflow of state inmates swelling West Virginia’s 10 regional jails to 1,700 prisoners beyond their designed capacities.

Among other things, the law allowed for judges to include six-month early supervised release terms when sentencing non-violent offenders and called for a research-supported method to assess an offender’s needs and risks. The law also set a timetable for expanding the drug court system to all counties because it was viewed successful in deterring repeat offenses. All of the provisions in that law are not yet in place.

Since April, the state’s inmate population has dropped from 7,078 to 6,825, Joe Garcia, deputy general counselor for Tomblin, told the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jails and Corrections this week, according to a report in The Charleston Gazette. That total is headed in the opposite direction of previous projections that the inmate population would exceed the 7,500 mark by the end of the year, prompting concerns that the state might have to build another prison costing $200 million or more.

A prime factor in the improvement is that the Division of Corrections has opened up more beds by converting the former Industrial Home for Youth into the Salem Correctional Facility, which as of this week had taken on 296 inmates.

That has contributed to a decline in the overflow of state prisoners in regional jails from 1,736 to 1,192 over the last seven months. That is crucial because state prisoners housed in regional jails do not have access to the services and programs that can enable them to qualify for parole consideration. Once those inmates are moved to the state corrections facilities, they can access those programs and work toward an earlier release.

In another good sign, the legislative committee was told that the number of inmates who have not completed all requirements to be eligible for parole has dropped from 1,200 last year to 600 currently.

The fact that nearly 1,200 Division of Corrections inmates are still housed in the regional jails indicates the state still has a long way to go. And going forward, it will be important not only to monitor the number of inmates, but also keep an eye tuned to any resulting problems, such as whether an inordinate number of inmates released early run afoul of the law again. That was one of the concerns raised prior to the law’s passage, and is a question that should be monitored in the future.

But with the progress so far and more strategies included in the Justice Reinvestment Act coming on line, there’s good reason for optimism.
 

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