Prison Reform

West Virginia’s prisons and regional jails are overcrowded nearly to the crisis point. If state government does not do something about that, it is virtually certain a federal judge will take the initiative.

At some point, an inmate lawsuit will give the federal courts an opening to mandate action by the state. By the time that happens, there will be no choice but to release some inmates. It has happened in other states.

State senators on Thursday approved a bill requested by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to address prison overcrowding. Its focus is recidivism – that is, inmates who are released, then commit new offenses and go back to prison.

Tomblin’s bill has a variety of provisions. Among them are better “risk assessment” of inmates and improved supervision of them after they serve their prison terms. More substance abuse treatment also is included.

That could put a real dent in recidivism, reducing it by as much as 80 percent. Similar programs in other states have had gratifying results.

Implementation of the program will not be cheap: The bill provides $25 million for better supervision of ex-convicts as well as more drug abuse treatment. In comparison to the cost of building a new prison, as much as $250 million, that sounds like a bargain, however.

Reportedly, a few members of the House of Delegates, which now must act on the bill, worry it may coddle some criminals. But that may be just the opposite of what it does: By providing better supervision, it could give hardcore offenders less opportunity to return to lives of crime.

State senators, many of whom certainly don’t have records suggesting they are soft on crime, approved the bill unanimously.

As experience is gained with what works and what does not, some fine-tuning of the anti-recidivism initiative may be necessary. But for now, the governor’s bill should be enacted. West Virginia simply must do something about prison overcrowding, and Tomblin’s package seems like a good option.

Members of the House of Delegates should follow the Senate’s lead and approve the bill.