November 13, 2013

A better solution to prison overcrowding

Note: the following op-ed of mine on prison overcrowding ran in Sunday's Charleston WV Gazette-Mail. For some reason, however, they didn't put it online. Here it is:

Earlier this year, the WV legislature passed a bill proposed by Gov. Tomblin aimed at reducing the state’s chronic prison overcrowding problem. It was a step in the right direction, although in the short term it will keep the problem from getting worse rather than make it a whole lot better.

As of Nov. 1, there were over 6,808 people under the supervision of the Division of Corrections (DOC), although there are only enough beds for around 5,778. This means that 1,252 were held in regional jails rather than the state’s correctional facilities.

In recent years, the backlog has been as high as 1,874. Part of the reason for the recent drop in the backlog is the transfer of some inmates to Salem, which was formerly a juvenile detention center.

This kind of overcrowding causes all kinds of problems, including a more dangerous situation for inmates, corrections officers and ultimately the community at large. Jails are meant to be temporary holding facilities. For the most part, they don’t offer the kind of programs, treatment, education and rehabilitative activities provided by the DOC.

In some cases, inmates have languished in regional jails for long periods of time after being sentenced to state prisons. Some have even been denied parole because they didn’t complete programs that weren’t even offered where they were held. It’s a pretty classic catch 22 situation.

The underlying reason for this problem is that over the last few decades, despite a fairly low crime rate, West Virginia, like much of the country, began incarcerating more people than in the past for offenses that once had been dealt with in other ways. It also began keeping them in prison longer and making less use of parole.  A 2012 study by the Pew Charitable Trust found that West Virginia’s sentences for most crimes increased dramatically between 1990 and 2009 and were often longer than the national average or those of neighboring states.

To use an overworked plumbing metaphor, the pipeline to prisons got bigger but the drain got smaller.  The end result was an expensive system that ate up more and more of the state’s budget, devastated many low income families and communities, and didn’t contribute as much to public safety as a more rational approach would have done.

Things have gotten to the point now that DOC officials are contemplating relocating around 400 prisoners to out of state, private, for-profit prisons so that they can take part in the kinds of programs not offered in jails.

While those motives are praiseworthy, there are some problems with this approach. For one thing, private prisons are expensive. For another, their track record isn’t very good. Caroline Isaacs, a co-worker of mine in Arizona, recently published a study on the subject, the punch line of which is in the title: Private Prisons: The Public’s Problem. Read more here:

Isaacs concludes that “The profit motive of privatized prisons stands in direct conflict with the purpose of corrections, which is to correct behavior—thereby reducing future crime. Unfortunately, these corporations are counting on future crime for the financial health of their business.”

Shipping inmates out of state could  weaken family and community ties that may already be frayed.

Finally, even if 400 inmates get services, that would still leave over 800 inmates stagnating back in the regional jails.

Ironically, a more promising solution was arrived at more than 10 years ago as a result of a WV Supreme Court decision which created a long-term plan for dealing with overcrowding and which was agreed to by the DOC and the Regional Jail Authority.

The Supreme Court ordered the creation of a plan in a 2000 ruling in the State ex rel Sams v. Kirby case, which at the time dealt with a much less severe jail backlog of 850. Had the plan been fully implemented, the problem would have been permanently eliminated by 2007. Instead, it has grown much worse.

Some aspects of the plan included granting extra good time for certain offenders. Specifically, it called for the DOC to “identify those prisoners who, through their work records, educational accomplishments, and good conduct qualify for recommendations of extra good time, thereby reducing the amount of time left to serve for prisoners whose conduct warrants it.”

It also called for the creation of special work or education programs to allow appropriate inmates to earn extra good time. In addition, it called for the division to identify low risk prisoners “who, through years of good conduct and successful completion of rehabilitative programs, are appropriate candidates for commutation, or shortening of their sentences.”

Other common sense elements of the plan were reviewing the sentences of older inmates who no longer constituted a threat to public safety and removing harsh and restrictive parole practices. West Virginia’s rate of granting parole to eligible inmates dropped from 65.9 percent in 1990 to 28.3 percent in 2002. Last year, the Justice Center of the Council for State Governments estimated the effective parole rate to be 33 percent.

In the years since this plan was issued, significant progress has been made in risk and needs assessments of offenders, which should simplify the implementation of the plan.

Sometimes in West Virginia we are pretty good at coming up with solutions but not so much on making them happen.

I have profound respect for the people charged with the difficult job of running West Virginia’s corrections system. In this case, however, the path laid out by the Supreme Court’s long term plan seems more promising to me than the Trojan horse of private for-profit prisons.

Wilson is director of the American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project and a Gazette contributing columnist.

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