Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Editorials

August 19, 2012

Prison overcrowding

Relaxed sentencing not the answer

— — Lawmakers in West Virginia are still debating how to resolve the Mountain State’s growing inmate population.

It seems the number of jails and prisons in the state are growing increasingly crowded. During a meeting earlier this week of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, lawmakers were told that the 1,800 state-sentenced inmates still in the 10-unit regional jail system could nearly double by the end of the year.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, are expressing frustration over what they perceive as a lack of leadership in addressing the overcrowding issue. Barnes argues the prison numbers have grown over the past eight years with no meaningful steps being taken to address the problem in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein says an internal projection, based on a study by George Washington University, shows the regional jail system could be housing 3,500 state inmates by the end of this year. And Acting Regional Jail Director Joe DeLong says the situation has been “bursting at the seams for some time.”

DeLong says it’s not his call for more prison facilities to be constructed. Instead, he argues that’s a decision for the Legislature.

OK. So it looks like lawmakers need to make a decision. Here is what they shouldn’t do. Laws, and sentencing guidelines, shouldn’t be relaxed. Already, we are seeing far too many repeat offenders — some convicted of violent crimes and others who are registered sex offenders — back on the streets across southern West Virginia, and right here in Mercer County, after only serving a couple of years in jail.

No, we need to get tougher — not softer — on crime. Some in Charleston seem perplexed by this common-sense suggestion. Instead, they continually advocate alternative sentencing, and shorter sentences. Alternative sentencing does work when the proper candidates are selected. One needs to look no further than the Day Report Center in Mercer County as an example of an alternative sentencing program that is working. But not all inmates can be successfully rehabilitated. And those convicted of violent crimes — murder, sexual assault of children, etc. — should not be back out walking on our streets after receiving what amounts to only a slap on the wrist. And the same goes for the growing number of registered sex offenders in our region.

So, that being said, it would appear that lawmakers may have no other choice than to bite the bullet and recommend the construction of a new prison.

Yes, it will cost money. But it will also create jobs. It may even help stimulate the economy. Most importantly, it will keep violent offenders where they belong — behind bars.

The decision would appear to be simple in our opinion. Lawmakers need to get tougher on crime. And they should take steps now to ensure that repeat offenders of violent crimes aren’t back out on the streets after serving only a few years in prison. And if overcrowding remains a significant problem, it may be time to laying the foundation for that new prison.

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