West Virginia politicians are joining forces with attorneys' groups and other concerned organizations to examine the state's prison overcrowding and soaring crime rates. Funding from the Pew Center on the States will allow the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance to lead the study.
Many in the state may not realize its prison population increased 5.7 percent each year from 2000 to 2009 - a growth rate three and a half times the national average. Nearly 7,000 people are incarcerated in West Virginia, while another 1,800 inmates are held in regional jail facilities because the state has run out of room in prisons.
And the problem is not likely to ease up. To the contrary, estimates are that unless something changes, the state's prison population could grow by about 45 percent during the next eight years.
But those in state government should be commended for attempting to find better solutions than simply building more prisons, which the state has to view as a financial last resort. A new incarceration facility of even moderate size would cost at least $200 million.
"We need to find out why we're such an outlier and to think about how to reverse the trend of prison population growth," said state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.
Other states have used the "justice re-investment" approach as a way to find policy solutions to prison overcrowding. Kentucky has implemented policies it projects will save taxpayers $422 million over the next 10 years.
State officials must ensure those conducting the study operate under a proper understanding of West Virginians and the challenges that have made our prison population grow so quickly. Templates that work in other states may not fit here.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin says the state has chosen to "use data to determine if there is a way to spend less and have a bigger impact on crime."
That they have chosen not to simply throw money at the problem and hope it goes away is a good first step.