WV'S SKYROCKETING JAIL COSTS - USA Has World's Biggest Stockade

(01/07/2009)

The Charleston Gazette summarized the dilemma of locking-up more West Virginia citizens year after year, while the population is stagnant and the crime rate is low.

The State Regional Jail and Correctional Authority recently voted to raise the daily rate 72 cents to $48.25.

The system is costing taxpayers millions and millions of dollars in many West Virginia counties, with some county officials claiming it is pushing them toward bankruptcy.

America is the world's largest stockade, reports the Gazette, with more than 2 million Americans locked in prison and jail cells.

Per capita, this nation confines six times more of its citizens than Canada, eight times more than France, and 12 times more than Japan does.

Are Americans 12 times more criminal than the Japanese, and eight times more lawless than the French?

Of course not.

The explanation is that U.S. justice is more harsh, reflecting a punitive national mentality, perhaps inherited from the Puritans.

America's incarceration keeps rising, even though crime rates have declined.

About one-third of U.S. prisoners committed violent crimes, and need to be locked in steel cages for public safety.

The other two-thirds are jailed for drug and property offenses, and could be released through alternative sentencing.

Keeping them caged costs taxpayers billions each year, wrecking state and county budgets.

Confinement is imposed disproportionately on blacks and the poor. Most people who commit white-collar crime, get a better deal.

West Virginia's biggest growth industry may well be the corrections system.

The state had about 2,000 inmates around 1990.

The number has soared to 6,000 and is projected to reach 7,000 by 2014.

The Charleston Gazette asks, "Did West Virginians turn three times more criminal?" as the state's population has generally declined.

If not, why did jailing triple?

"Was the growth caused by strutting politicians who pose as tough on crime?" asked the Gazette.

Last year, the state Council of Churches and Wheeling Jesuit University released a study urging the state to divert more nonviolent felons to probation and "community corrections programs" such as day-report centers, work-release programs, halfway houses and other plans letting them hold jobs and support families.

Unless this is done, the report warned, taxpayers must pay up to $200 million for another 1,200-bed prison, and more millions to staff it.

Now, relief is becoming possible through state "drug courts" that seek to help addicts instead of turning them into hardened convicts.

Funding for Drug Courts comes from a federal grant and Purdue Pharma settlement money won by Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

Despite public perception, treatment of alcoholism and drug addition in West Virginia is very sketchy, with insurance companies in the US using their managed-care arms to provide such treatment only if it's medically necessary.

That means unless alcohol and drugs physically threaten life, they will not pay.

The drug court will put addicts on probation - if they submit to regular drug testing, avoid narcotics "hot zones," perhaps wear electronic monitors, and obey other controls. They will have a chance to work and be self-supporting, instead of a burden on taxpayers.


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