Monitor Prison Reform Carefully

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and West Virginia legislators have every right to feel good about efforts to reduce prison and jail overcrowding – but only tentatively. It is too early to pronounce the action an unqualified success.

No doubt officials from other states with packed prisons were paying close attention to a presentation by Tomblin at a Council of State Governments meeting last week in Washington. What the governor had to say may have sent them home with hope they can correct their own problems.

As Tomblin pointed out, West Virginia’s prison population grew by 20 percent between 2007-12. A year ago state prisons and regional jails held about 7,100 inmates. So severe was the overcrowding that there was talk about building a new prison.

Then, in March 2013, the Justice Reinvestment Act was approved. Now, the inmate population is 6,743. That remains too high, but it is likely more reductions will be made.

How? In essence, by deciding that while some people need to be incarcerated, others can be rehabilitated and returned to society with no risk to the public. Early release programs along with more flexible sentencing have been used.

Tomblin said better drug treatment programs, more help for ex-convicts who need jobs and housing and better monitoring of those who benefit from programs such as early release are innovations being used to reduce recidivism.

All well and good. But what about the recidivism rate? It probably is too early in the program to answer that question.

State officials should be watching trends closely. If programs to get ex-cons back on the straight and narrow work in the long run, that will be wonderful news. But if adjustments are needed, they should be made without delay. Beneficiaries of early release programs who return to lives of crime should be sent back to prison immediately.

Clearly, state officials had to do something to reduce prison and jail overcrowding. They deserve credit for acting decisively. But the campaign is a work in progress that may require fine-tuning.