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Rick Thompson: Dangerous criminals must remain locked up

Feb. 12, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

With just a few days to go before the start of the 2013 legislative session, I recently had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion with Senate President Kessler and the House and Senate minority leaders hosted by the West Virginia Associated Press.

While there are many pressing problems and significant issues we discussed, by far the most important one was public safety.

It is imperative that the Legislature and the governor do everything possible to ensure that dangerous criminals are locked up and that all West Virginians are safe.

Which is why I am compelled to stress -- as I did during last week's panel discussion -- that whatever steps the Legislature and governor consider to help alleviate the overcrowding problem in our state prisons and jails, I would never support legislation that would result in letting dangerous criminals back out on the street.

For many years, lawmakers have grappled with how to deal with overcrowded prisons and jails. I believe most legislators are in agreement that building a new prison is an extremely costly, undesirable solution.

That is why this year, the governor and the Legislature commissioned a study by the Pew Center on States and U.S. Department of Justice which resulted in the very recently issued Justice Reinvestment Report.

The group made several recommendations, many of which have been implemented in Texas and several other states with a great deal of success. Some of the recommendations can be enacted quickly, and I expect Governor Tomblin to include many of them on his agenda this legislative session.

Much like the rest of the country, West Virginia is faced with a tremendous, insidious plague: substance abuse. It is affecting the entire state -- our crime rate, our law enforcement, our education system, and ultimately our state budget.

Our current substance abuse treatment facilities are underfunded. While the Legislature has managed in past years to find temporary funding solutions to help, I intend to work hard this year to find the $20 million to $25 million that is needed to properly support those facilities.

I believe that funding is essential. Addicts often commit crimes. If we can provide proper treatment, we can prevent those people from committing crimes and ending up in our prison system.

As I said to the members of the Associated Press, it's money well invested.

When we talk about prison overcrowding and the many proposals to alleviate the problem, I hear many concerns expressed, rightfully so, that legislators might become overzealous and jeopardize public safety by letting criminals out prematurely. I guarantee we won't be doing that.

But I think we can take steps to address our high recidivism rate. For instance, we can increase the supervision of those on probation to make sure they are not returning to substance abuse or having other problems that could lead them back to crime.

We must keep those individuals who need to be locked up behind prison bars. But we should do more to pinpoint those who need treatment, and to try to stop them from committing further crimes. When prisoners are released, we should look for ways to encourage them to comply with the requirements of their probation so they don't go back to jail.

Then I think we will see a reduction in our prison population and our crime rate.

In the meantime, we also can do more to help our law enforcement and other emergency personnel, including fire departments and ambulance services. It is my hope the Legislature will adopt a comprehensive bill this session to provide them with more funding and support. They are our first line of defense in my number one goal: keeping West Virginians safe.

Delegate Rick Thompson, a Democrat from Wayne, is speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates.

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