Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 7, 2013

Early release

Not the best overcrowding solution


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — After months of study and debate, lawmakers in Charleston are advocating an early release plan for non-violent offenders as a way of reducing prison overcrowding and re-offending recidivism rates.

They argue that about four-fifths of all inmates in prison or regional jails are currently there for drug-related offenses, an alarming fact that certainly isn’t to be disputed.

Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, also correctly notes that more money will be needed to treat inmates who are hooked on drugs and to increase rehab services.

He says investing millions into new treatment services is still cheaper than expending $220 million for a new state prison. Once again, Kessler makes a valid point if it is simply measured based upon the dollar figure.

However, Kessler says lawmakers must focus on the recidivism rate, and he believes the best way to do that is to provide an early-release program for non-violent offenders, or provide them with needed treatment so that they can re-enter society, the Register-Herald in Beckley reported last week.

Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, agrees with Kessler that an early-release program must be a part of the measure.

However, we are not sure that letting criminals out of jail early, and back on the streets due to overcrowded jails, is the answer.

Just look at what we’ve seen in Mercer County in recent years. Individuals charged with often serious crimes end up serving only a small amount of time in prison before being released back on the streets only to commit more crimes. How do we explain this to the families of the victims? How do we explain this to those law enforcement officers who spend countless hours and resources bringing offenders to justice? How do we justify this to law-abiding citizens who expect criminals to serve time that is appropriate to the crime?

Yes, some alternative sentencing programs are working, and should be viewed as models for the state. Mercer County’s Day Report Center is an excellent example. But not every inmate — whether violent or non-violent — should be automatically considered for early release because state prisons are overcrowded.

When an individual breaks the law, he or she should be expected to do the time — the full amount of time imposed by a judge. Guaranteeing a get-out-of-jail early card to offenders just because state prisons and regional jails are overcrowded isn’t the best solution. Nor does it send a very good message to law-abiding citizens, family members of victims of serious crimes and to those law enforcement officers charged with keeping criminals off of the streets.