West Virginia prisons and regional jails are less overcrowded than they were seven months ago, meaning a law enacted then appears to be working, state legislators were told this week. Let's hope so. The alternative is spending money the state doesn't have on a new prison or contractor-operated facilities.
Since April 13, when the Justice Reinvestment Act was signed into law, the number of inmates in state prisons has dropped from 7,078 to 6,825, lawmakers were told this week. And though in mid-April the regional jail network held 1,736 convicts who were supposed to be in prisons, that number had dropped to 1,192 during the same period.
Unfortunately, the new law had little to do with some of the reduction. During the year, the old juvenile corrections center at Salem was converted to a facility for adults. It is intended to provide 400 new beds, of which 296 already are filled.
The basis of the JRA is allowing some non-violent offenders to leave prison sooner than they might have otherwise, and providing better supervision for those enjoying early release. It also provides more money for substance abuse treatment.
In addition, the law makes it less likely ex-convicts who violate terms of their parole will be sent back to prison to finish their sentences. Under the new law, judges have an alternative to sending parole violators back to prison for the full terms of their original sentences. Instead, judges can order "shock incarceration" for 60 days. Presumably, that taste of life back behind bars straightens some of the violators out.
Beyond any doubt, something had to be done to reduce prison and jail overcrowding in West Virginia. Otherwise, it was only a matter of time until an inmate filed a "cruel and unusual punishment" lawsuit and a federal court ordered the state to address the problem, by whatever means necessary. In some other states, that has included releasing convicts, even if they might pose a danger to society.
This week's report is good news - but with a caveat. The public's safety needs to be the paramount consideration. Convicts who abuse the breaks they get through early release by going back to lives of crime should be sent back to prison to serve the full terms of their sentences. Setting a few examples in that regard probably would do a world of good in convincing other early-release beneficiaries to head for the straight-and-narrow.