West Virginia is locking up too many of its citizens

Here’s some statistics that you might find as unsettling as I do.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the population of West Virginia that year was about the same as it was in 1960.

From 1971 to 1997, West Virginia had the lowest crime in the nation, before settling for second lowest in 1998 with 2,547.2 crimes committed per 100,000 people. And it hasn’t changed much in the intervening years — in 2011 it was 2,589.8 per 100,000 people. Our prison population has, however grown 89 percent, from 3,535 inmates in 1998 to 6,681 in 2010.

According to Brad Douglas, a research analyst with the West Virginia Department of Corrections “nearly 90 percent of West Virginia crimes are nonviolent.” He notes that that number hasn’t changed much since 1961. Statistics I’ve seen indicate the number of crimes peaked at around 2,900 per 100,000 in 2005-2006, but it has subsequently declined. Interestingly, murder and non-negligent manslaughter are the least committed crimes in our state — they peaked in 1975 at 7.4 per 100,000 before declining by more than a 1/3 to 4.3 per 100,000 in 2011.

So while the crime rate remains relatively stable, West Virginia’s incarceration rate has grown rapidly. According to the Pew Center on the States, the Mountain State even bucked a nationwide trend that started in 2009 when state prison populations began to decrease for the first time since 1972. West Virginia had the second highest increase in the nation (behind Indiana) at 5.1 percent.

While the nationwide decrease is likely the result of budget constraints, it’s worth noting that the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world at 730 people per 100,000 of population. The U.S. Department of Justice puts the number at 500 per 100,000, but this includes only those inmates sentenced to more than a year in federal or state penitentiaries. It does not include regional or local jails — the cost of which was the number one concern raised by the Eastern Panhandle’s county commissions during the Legislative Summit I attended the at the Blue Ridge Community and Technical College on Dec. 3. According to the summary prepared for the summit, the three counties of Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson spent nearly $5 million in regional jail costs in fiscal year 2011-2012.

At the summit, the county commissions focused on raising revenues to meet the rising cost of regional jails. The list of options included: redirecting the state’s portion of the real estate transaction tax to fund jails; ensuring that municipalities pay their fair share (80 percent of all crimes reported in West Virginia are in municipalities); increasing defendant reimbursement fees and stepping up collection efforts; tapping into Marcellus shale revenues; or raising taxes on beer and wine.

Oh, there was one more suggestion — to improve mechanisms to permit defendants to post bond through 24-hour availability of magistrates on call. This was the only one aimed at reducing the number of people in jail.

One has to wonder as to why the incarceration rate is rising in West Virginia while the crime rate is not. According to Douglas: “Criminal justice professionals and policy makers are examining the state’s sentencing practices as they analyze this troubling increase in incarcerations.”

The West Virginia prison system is overcrowded. People who should be in penitentiaries are currently being held in regional jails. This creates additional problems for inmates and puts stresses on the system. It also results in higher costs that are ultimately borne by taxpayers.

We have some important choices to make. But here’s something to consider that I’ve heard repeated on three different occasions — at last year’s Legislative Summit, at this year’s summit and at the Legislative Wrap-Up luncheon hosted by the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce last May — and it’s this: we should incarcerate people who we are afraid of and not who we are mad at. Perpetrators of violent crimes and other serious felonies are people to be afraid of and should be incarcerated to protect the public. However, regarding other types of crime, perhaps we should consider controlling our temper and try another approach.

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