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Editorial: Prison reforms designed to reduce overcrowding

Mar. 09, 2013 @ 11:59 PM

Texas wrote the book on filling up prisons and building more.

At one point, the state housed 162,000 inmates and was forecasting the need for more prison cells. But eventually the expense of new prisons (about $200 million a piece) and housing all those inmates, became too much -- even for conservatives who considered themselves "tough on crime."

The Lone Star State began an aggressive experiment in trying to reduce its prison population by trying to find a smarter way to deal with the host of non-violent, but often drug-addled offenders.

The effort has been so successful in trimming the prison population that the Austin American-Statesman newspaper recently took an in-depth look at the rising number of empty cells in both state-built and privately built prisons. The newspaper's investigation found 11,000 empty beds in the state corrections system, and another 21,000 empty in county jails. Six state juvenile prisons have been closed.

Now, Texas faces the question of what to do with all these unneeded facilities.

Many states, including West Virginia, might consider that a nice problem to have. Prisons in the Mountain State are full with inmates spilling over into crowded regional jails, and this year lawmakers are considering new legislation to reverse those trends and avoid building more prisons.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's prison reform bill, which was approved by the state Senate Judiciary Committee this week, includes some approaches from the Texas playbook.

More would be invested in substance abuse treatment for inmates. Prison officials stress that the vast majority of prisoners have some sort of connection to drugs and drug abuse, and many are non-violent offenders. But many leave prison with the same problem that brought them there in the first place, and before long they are back in jail.

A stronger effort to help with those abuse problems should cut down the recidivism and eventually the prison population. The bill also pushes for increased supervision of prisoners after they are released. Again, the tendency to fall back into bad habits and bad crowds is great. Providing more monitoring and support should help inmates stay out of trouble and hopefully find productive lives.

In the end, these alternative approaches are needed to help break the cycle of substance abuse and crime, which had been passed from one generation to the next in recent years. Although it is easy to understand the public's desire to incarcerate offenders, that approach has not really worked. In 1980, the national prison population was around 500,000. In recent years, it has hovered above 2 million, and still the problems with drugs and crime continue -- in some areas worse than ever.

These new proposals, along with the drug courts and other initiatives already under way in the judicial system, can hopefully lead us toward "smarter sentencing" for non-violent offenders and more rehabilitation.

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