The harsh reality is that most people charged with a crime end up being convicted. Of those convicted, a majority in West Virginia are sent to a regional jail system where they wait to finish their sentence in the state penitentiary system. The State of West Virginia has then Regional Jails and in those regional jails are 1,763 inmates who are under inmates under the Division of Corrections awaiting space at one of the state’s 14 Division of Corrections facilities. The problem is that both the Regional Jails and the State Departments of Corrections are both over crowded.
At the end of 2010, the Division of Corrections in West Virginia had 6,681 inmates. The number of inmates who are sentenced to the Department of Correction in West Virginia is expected to increase to 8,251 by the year 2015, and 9,732 by the year 2020. In February of 2011, the Office of Research and Strategic Planning published a document entitled West Virginia Correctional Population Forecast 2010 to 2020, A Study of the State’s Prison System.
Under the West Virginia’s regional jail program an inmate sentenced to the West Virginia State Penitentiary, he most likely will be housed in a regional jail anywhere from six to 18 months while waiting on a bed for one of the state penitentiary systems. The regional jails are overburdened, and most prisoners are double bunked, left sleeping on the floors. The Huttonsville Correctional Center has built extra dorms, which are now over housed.
West Virginia is a small state, roughly 1.9 million citizens. However, the prison population grew by 5.1 percent in 2009 and 4.9 percent in 2010. Of the next decade, it is projected to grow an average of 4.6 per year. Now many people out there say “Well, you commit the crime, you should do the time,” and they have no problem with the prison population. The problem is that we can expect to receive an additional 305 inmates per year over the next 10 years, and 72.4 percent of all new prison admissions are for nonviolent offenders. Many of these offenders could continue to function in society, paying taxes and being productive citizens. However, they are being sent to the penitentiary system.
The state legislature in the past several years has tried to address the problem. However, they have been reluctant to deal with anything on the sentencing end. The cost for housing an inmate in the state penitentiary system is approximately $25,000.00 per year. Therefore, to take someone out of the work force who was making money and paying taxes, it’s now costing us $25,000.00 to house them, so you can see where this can contribute to the State budget problems.
The legislature’s response to the problems that we are currently having in the prison system was to adopt the Accelerated Parole Program. Now the Accelerated Parole Program is a program that the legislature put in to try to parole more people out of the state penitentiary system. You are eligible for this program if you have a felony, but it cannot be a crime of violence, a crime where the victim was a minor, and you cannot have more than one felony for a controlled substance, so there are some restrictions with the Accelerated Parole Program that will be applied. Although the Accelerated Parole Program is one way to downsize the prison population, it is not the most effective.
What has happened in this country across the whole is what I would like to refer as the “Nancy Grace Syndrome.” The television and popular news programs have all the information statistics and makes it appears to the common person that people are getting away with crimes and that not very many are prosecuted, despite the fact that all prosecutors, have over a 90-some percent conviction rate. So if you were charged with a crime, usually 96 to 98 percent chances you will be found guilty of something. That perception is the reality. As television continues to put on sensational programs that show criminals not being convicted of crimes, it leaves the impression that people do not get placed in the jail system and that political pressure goes onto local judges. These local judges, due to feedback from the local community, feel that it is their job if someone is convicted to indeed put them in the penitentiary.
Now to the common citizen, it may not seem like the current 6,681 people that we have in prison in West Virginia is significant. However, in 2000, we had 3,870 people in prison. This will result in the population doubling over a ten-year period. Indeed, at the end of 2011, that figure should be doubled. However, it will increase another 3,000 by the end of 2020.
It is interesting to look at the details of people who are committed to prison in a way to try to explain the increase in the prison population. One way to look at it is in a broad category of how many people are in prison for crimes of violence. Indeed, that figure seems to be somewhat consistent. In 2010, 3,171 people, roughly 52.5 percent, were in prison for what was termed as “violent crimes.” That figure is supposed to stay consistent with 3,289 in the year 2015, and 3,816 in the year 2020.
Property crimes account for a lot of the current prison population. In 2010, 1,464 people, roughly 24 percent, were in the penitentiary for property crimes, and that is going to have a steady increase projected over the next 10 years. The people who sent to the state penitentiary for drug issues were more than 679 in the year 2010, and now will increase approximately, 300 by the year 2015, and double by approximately 2020.
It is interesting to note historically, in this country and other countries, the use of long-term incarceration has had limited beneficial value in terms of rehabilitation. Despite the fact that very little evidence shows that warehousing someone and removing them from society, in any way rehabilitates them. In fact, most of the people that do become institutionalized and released from the institution, they go back to their patterns or habits that they had before. If they tend to be someone that used and sold drugs, without any proper education or rehabilitation, they quickly return to that lifestyle. The only positive effect that can be said about the penitentiary system is that when you lock certain segments of your society away from the other segments of society, they don’t have any more interaction with each other. That tends to be the system that we have adopted in America for punishing law breakers.
In the federal system, and likewise in the state system, prison growth is seen as a positive thing, more guards need to be hired, construction of new prisons need to be implemented, the food services, transportation, and the entire small economic infrastructure need to be put in place to support the entire prison social economic complex.
However, I feel that most economists would say that incarcerating people is a not an economic solution, and although it may employ people, in the short term and in the long term, it takes tax dollars that could be significantly used in other fashions.
An important area where there continues to be a need for growth and more understanding is in community corrections rehabilitative programs. If an individual can stay on home confinement, they continue to work, receive counseling and treatment, or continue to work in the area and report daily to a community correction’s officer, they are no longer placing a burden on the economy. However, these programs must be closely monitored to see that they are actually beneficial and not simply designed for self-propagation. The end goal of any criminal penalty system should be to allow the individual to remain in society and not break the law, harm anybody else or their self.
The prison population in West Virginia and in the country as a whole continues to be a sad commentary on our inability to solve our social problems. West Virginia has followed suit with the rest of the country when dealing with persons who are charged with crimes. Many of these people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are warehoused and placed into the penitentiary system as a solution. The state government has become more and more pressed with economic realities as our federal government continues to run deficits. We, the people, have to realize that simply warehousing someone and locking them down 24/7 does not provide a solution to the criminal problem. Hopefully, we can look at less expensive way and actually work toward rehabilitating people and allow them to be productive members of our society. Until that point and time comes, West Virginia’s prison population will continue to grow and I estimate that if we continue, we will be one of the fastest growing states in the nation based on percentage of per capita with prison growth.