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March 23, 2005 - The Charleston Gazette (WV)

Editorial: Disgrace - Why So Many Prisons?

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AMERICA is tainted by its horrendous rate of prisoners locked in cells. This nation jails about six times more people per capita than do Canada, England, Mexico and other countries.

The United States has 2.1 million citizens in steel cages. Since it costs about $22,000 to hold each convict annually, taxpayers must cough up $40 billion-plus per year for incarceration.

California spends more for prisons than for higher education. Texas is the lock-"em-up capital, with more prisons than any other state. Texas has built 100 new prisons since 1980.

Why is America the world's biggest stockade? Are Americans six times more criminal than people in Canada, England, Mexico, etc.?

Of course not. The disgraceful U.S. lockup rate may come from harsh, judgmental, unforgiving attitudes inherited from Puritan founders. Vast numbers of Americans are locked up for drugs. Other societies are more tolerant of addicts, but not America.

Last month, a study by the state Council of Churches and two other humanitarian groups -- plus a second study by the Criminal Justice Analysis Center -- showed that the number of West Virginians in cells skyrocketed from 2,300 to more than 5,000 in the past decade.

Taxpayer costs likewise doubled.

The Legislature, desperate to find enough revenue to run the state government, is jarred by the soaring lockup tab. Meanwhile, county commissions are wracked by the cost of keeping defendants in regional jails. Last year, Kanawha's expense was $3.1 million.

Now, Kanawha commissioners see a way to reduce the incarceration burden. They want to put nonviolent offenders on probation -- leaving them free to hold jobs -- and make them report to a center where they'll get drug counseling, GED classes, career help and the like.

The commission already has hired a director for the day reporting center, and is applying for a state grant to employ counselors and officers.

Freed offenders would be charged perhaps $150 a month to help pay for the liberating system. Any who slipped back into dope or crime would lose their freedom, joining the multitude in cells.

Bravo. We think this is a splendid plan, and we hope the state grant is obtained. In fact, we hope the whole country utilizes such alternative sentences to the greatest degree possible.

Anything that reduces the grotesque rate of Americans in steel cages will be a blessing.

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