Prison overcrowding

Adrian Sainzand Holbrook MohrAssociated Press

July 18, 2012

Maintaining public safety is one of the principal reasons that people form governments. Public officials have always had trouble delivering it.

West Virginia, which once ranked low on incarceration and corrections spending, now finds itself a leader in the growth of prison and regional jail populations — partly because of abuse of legal and illegal drugs.

As Vicki Smith of reported, the state Department of Corrections is dealing with a prison population that grew more rapidly than that of any other between 2000 and 2009.

Corrections’ problems spill over into the regional jail system. Today, more than 1,800 convicted felons are parked in jails awaiting space in prisons — twice as many as were marking time in jail 10 years ago.

Should the state have built a larger prison when it closed the Civil War-era Moundsville prison? Should West Virginia put a couple of hundred million dollars into another facility?

How much would it cost to staff it over time?

Or should the state define deviance down and stop incarcerating people for certain behavior? Well, what behavior would the public simply learn to tolerate?

The Division of Corrections and the regional jail system, as always, are being asked to do the impossible with nothing. The public is asked to put up with the same offenders over and over again.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center of the Council of State governments, has worked with 16 other states. Now it will work with a panel of West Virginians to help us find a solution.

It won’t be easy. Money never has grown on trees. Public tolerance of crime has not improved much over the centuries either.

Whatever the panel decides, it should be up front not just about the cost of incarcerating more people, but about the dangers of refusing to do so.

Distributed by The Associated Press