Criminals released from prison once, then sent back for failure to comply with conditions of parole or probation, may be the primary reason for prison overcrowding in West Virginia, legislators were told last week. That raises the question of what - if anything - can be done to keep from having to send convicts back behind bars.
Analysts from the Council of State Governments Justice Center have been studying West Virginia's corrections system in an effort to find ways to deal with jail and prison overcrowding. Last week some of them explained their initial findings to lawmakers.
The number of criminals sentenced to prison terms in the state has been increasing, the analysts found. Last year, 1,704 men and women newly convicted of crimes were sent to regional jails and prisons.
But during the same period, 1,352 prison admissions were people who failed to comply with requirements of probation, parole, placements in community corrections programs, or home confinement. In effect, many of them were sent back to cells.
Justice Center analysts found many of those released from prison or spared it through home confinement or community corrections were not properly supervised. And in some cases, those sent back to prison had not committed new crimes, but had merely failed to meet technical requirements such as reporting to supervisory officers.
At first glance, it may seem more flexibility on parole and probation requirements such as reporting might be a good approach to keeping some offenders from being returned to prison. But the question arises whether failure to meet such "technical" requirements might be only a precursor to more serious parole and probation violations - such as entirely new crimes.
Justice Center analysts certainly have given legislators something to think about. More study of the problem and ramifications of reactions to it is needed, however.
Opening up more prison cells by looking the other way when already convicted criminals fail to comply with the rules of programs that give them second chances may not be prudent - or safe.