Editorial: Drive to Cut Prison Populations Yields Progress

The Herald-Dispatch

West Virginia’s initiative to reduce the number of inmates crammed into its prisons and regional jails appears to have made more progress than expected in its first year.

That’s a positive development for the state, of course, because it has been faced in recent years with the prospect of having to build more costly prison space.

But it also bodes well for many offenders who find themselves with the opportunity to avoid time behind bars or shortened prison sentences — and benefit from a renewed emphasis by the corrections system to help them put their lives on the right path.

A concerted effort to tackle the overcrowded facilities began last year with the passage of legislation called the Justice Reinvestment Act. It was developed after state officials worked with the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which had helped several other states out of similar situations without having to build more prisons. Among the strategies included were expanded supervised release for non-violent offenders and community-based programs to reduce the number of repeat offenders. There has been more emphasis on workforce training programs, helping parolees find housing and providing access to substance-abuse treatment programs.

When the state embarked on this drive, Justice Center officials warned that any tangible results may not occur for several years. However, it appears West Virginia is progressing already, according to a report to lawmakers this week by Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein.

During legislative interim meetings in Bridgeport, Rubenstein told members of the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary that the state’s inmate population decreased 3.5 percent between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, according to a report by The Charleston Gazette.

Another aspect of the improvement is that the number of state inmates being housed in West Virginia’s 10 regional jails has fallen from 1,700 in March 2013 to about 900 as of June 30, Rubenstein said. That helps take a strain off the jails, which were overcrowded by the influx of state prisoners but poorly equipped to provide the rehabilitation programs they needed.

A key part of the new approach is to try to minimize the number of repeat offenders through a variety of programs. Steps include having transitional housing and employment coordinators to help released inmates. The state also is thinking about providing short-term loans to help them back into society for such things as work clothes or paying a deposit on an apartment.

There’s still a long way to go before crowded conditions are eliminated altogether, and getting there may indeed take several years. It’s also important that corrections officials develop sufficient information in coming years to determine whether the programs initiated now are indeed making a difference in released inmates’ lives and not posing increased threats to public safety. But the first-year results are certainly encouraging.