|AMERICA HAS THE WORLD'S LARGEST STOCKADE: Per capita, this nation confines six times more of its citizens than Canada, eight times more than France, and 12 times more than Japan. |
By Bob Weaver
Despite its small population, rural geography, old-fashioned values and a reputation as a law-abiding state, West Virginia's prison population is rising at an astounding rate, according to the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Politicians certaunly don't like be cast as soft on crime.
While the U.S. prison population increased less than 3 percent from 2005 to 2006, the Mountain State's incarceration rate spiked around 8 percent.
The only other state that came close was Ohio's 7.2 percent. Kentucky had only a 1.7 percent growth during that period.
The United States with about 5 percent of the world's population, houses 25% of the world's prisoners - about 2.3 million prisoners.
One in one hundred people in America is now locked up.
Communist China has 1.5 million and Russia has about 800,000.
A new report predicts West Virginia's prison population will grow to a staggering 10,304 inmates by 2017 - an increase of about 4,300 over the course of a decade.
The number of inmates in the custody of the state Division of Corrections has grown from 2,517 in 1995 to 6,056 in 2007, according to a report by the West Virginia Criminal Justice Statistical Analysis Center.
That's during a time that the state's population has been declining or stagnant, and crime statistics indicate the state has among the lowest crime rates in the nation.
The statistics indicate West Virginia has more criminals per square mile than most other states in the nation.
Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubinstein told media the high numbers are merely indicative of the high quality of the state's judicial system — from prosecutors and judges to law enforcement officers.
The system is costing taxpayers millions and millions of dollars in many West Virginia counties, with some county officials claiming it is pushing their county's toward bankruptcy.
Writing in a Charleston newspaper this week, Dan Foster asked "Are we West Virginians really that violent, evil or vindictive - or are there other factors that lead us to expend so many resources locking people up?"
Are West Virginians three times more criminal than most of the nation? "Was the growth caused by strutting politicians who pose as tough on crime?" asked the Charleston Gazette.
No one wants criminals who would do harm to society to stay free, but about two-thirds are jailed for drug and property offenses. Surely many could be released through alternative sentencing.
The WV 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.
West Virginia has started at least two more studies regarding the issue.
Unless there are changes, the report warned, taxpayers must pay up to $200 million for another 1,000-bed prison, and multi-millions more each year to keep the jail system going.
The state, however, appears to have put the new prison on the slow track, opting for more community programs.
Jail costs are threatening to bankrupt several West Virginia counties.