Dealing with state prison overcrowding

Recommendations to help West Virginia cope with prison overcrowding appear to be based firmly on the philosophy that most criminals can be rehabilitated – that, in effect, once they are released from custody they would prefer to go and sin no more. Let’s hope so.

Both state prisons and regional jails are packed. One estimate is that as many as 2,000 convicted felons are being held in regional jails instead of higher security prisons.

Something has to be done about the problem, before a federal judge steps in and orders the state to release some inmates to lessen overcrowding. It has happened in other states, forcing officials there to free some hardened criminals.

One option – not an appealing one, given the state’s budget woes – is to build one or more new prisons. But such facilities are costly; one estimate is that a single new prison could cost as much as $200 million. Operating it would be a continuing drain on the state budget.

State officials sought help with the challenge from a national organization, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. It has had some success in helping other states lessen prison overcrowding.

JRI researchers reported this week that part of the key is curbing recidivism. Better assessment of criminals after they are arrested and improved supervision after they are released were suggested. In addition, it was recommended the state spend $25.5 million during the next five years on substance abuse and addiction treatment for convicts.

The ideas sound good, so much so that the state Supreme Court has already embraced one of them. Justices revealed last week they will require that every convicted felon undergo testing to measure risks and needs for rehabilitation.

Especially in the area of drug abuse treatment, the researchers’ ideas have merit. A substantial amount of the crime in West Virginia today is linked to drug abuse. Cleaning up addicts could put a big dent in the problem, and keep some convicts from returning to prison.

Better evaluation of felons and supervision of them after they are released may help, too.

But some of those in state prisons and regional jails are hardened criminals who should be locked up for as long as the law allows. No amount of rehabilitation will change them.

If following the JRI recommendations ensures West Virginia has plenty of prison space for those threats to society, state officials should do so.