Prison Reform Bill Is Crucial

Unless state officials reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails, a federal judge probably will order them to do so.

State prisons are packed with hundreds of inmates more than they were designed for and, as a result, some have been housed in regional jails. Now they, too, are over capacity.

In some other states with similar problems, inmates have filed “cruel and unusual punishment” lawsuits. Some of them have resulted in federal judges ordering, in effect, that convicts be released to provide more space in prisons.

To avoid that in the Mountain State, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin introduced a bill to reduce the prison population over time. State senators already have approved the measure.

Now, with less than a week left in the legislative session, it is stuck in the House of Delegates. Some lawmakers there object to a provision in the bill that would allow release of some non-violent offenders six months before their sentences normally would have allowed that. Convicts in the program would be supervised closely after leaving prison.

Some delegates, including a few in leadership positions, worry that the program will only give hardened criminals a break, allowing them to resume preying on West Virginians sooner than if they had finished their sentences. Defenders of the idea say only carefully selected inmates would be permitted in the program. And they reiterate that those released early will be watched closely.

For a few days it appeared disagreement over that provision of the prison reform bill might kill it in the House. There were signals during the weekend that a compromise might be reached, however.

Some way out of the impasse must be found. Again, unless productive steps are taken to reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails, there is a very great possibility the state may be forced into precipitous action that could result in exactly the problem that has some lawmakers worried: hardened criminals released to victimize West Virginians. To avoid that, legislators and the governor’s office should leave no stone unturned in an effort to compromise and enact a prison reform bill this week.