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May 23, 2005 - West Virginia Gazette (WV)

Prison System's Growth Mortgaging State's Future

By Jill Kriesky, Si Kahn and Dennis Sparks

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WEST Virginia must ensure public safety. But it cannot afford to mortgage its economic and educational future to an ever-expanding prison system.

In the last 10 years, the number of people locked in West Virginia's prisons more than doubled. Between 1994 and 2004, the state's prison population rose from 2,392 to 5,032, an increase of 110 percent. At the same time, both the state's population and its crime rate stayed about the same.

The growth of people in prison significantly exceeds national trends, and many of the state's sentences are far longer than the national average. For some offenses, people spend far longer in prison than the national average.

The impact on the state's finances is staggering. Since 1990, West Virginia has spent well over $100 million just to build new prisons. The amount spent each year on the Division of Corrections has almost tripled in the last 10 years.

While funds for Corrections have risen dramatically, social service programs and education have been shortchanged. The state has increased spending on prisons five times faster than it has on higher education.

Champions of fiscal economy have a strong argument for consideration of alternative responses to nonviolent crime. A substantial proportion of those incarcerated by the DOC have been convicted of nonviolent crimes. Employing those alternatives to traditional incarceration, which have already proved effective in the state, can save millions of dollars for the state, while providing opportunities for rehabilitation.

Currently, the Lee Day Report Center, operating in Wheeling and Weirton in the Northern Panhandle - now serving Brooke, Hancock, Marshall and Ohio counties - provides an array of services to carefully supervised participants. These participants remain in the community. They must report on a regular basis as a condition of release or supervision in order to account for their movements, or to participate in programs, services, or activities offered at the center.

Treatment at the Lee Day Report Center costs $14 per day. Between 2001 and 2004, 196 felony offenders were sentenced to the center, at a substantial saving to the state. The projected expansion of day report centers elsewhere in the state would result in major savings. Three centers would save $18 million to $27 million per year; seven centers would save $42 million to $63 million per year.

There are compelling cost-saving arguments for West Virginia to expand and fully fund the day report center initiative. In addition, the centers' rehabilitation programs will help participants to become productive members of society and in some cases alleviate circumstances that result in crime. The day report center initiative will help break the cycle of living in deprived, dysfunctional environments, then being convicted of crimes, then returning from prison in such a condition as to add to one's home environment's dysfunction and with an excellent chance of returning to prison.

As has been mentioned, such centers can also be of immense help in the re-entry of released prisoners, including parolees, into society. Given the tremendous financial and social benefits to the state, this report recommends that the West Virginia Legislature not only grant any increased budget requests by the governor for day report centers, but [that it] should fully fund this initiative.

At a time of financial stringency, and during an era in which the economic future of the state is tied to educational advancement, West Virginia appropriates $6,435 per full-time-equivalent higher education student, but $19,377 for each person incarcerated by the Division of Corrections. While state appropriations for higher education in inflation-adjusted dollars have increased, up 33 percent since 1994, state funds allocated to the DOC have increased 169 percent, five times as much.

West Virginia would do well to explore ways to slow down this steep rise in incarcerations and in prison costs. Implementing a cap on the number of people incarcerated should be a priority, along with re-examining sentencing and parole policies in the state that can lead to an end of the soaring number of incarcerations. A thorough re-examination of the recent parole policy of the state is in order. Embracing the approach already taken by the Northern Panhandle's Lee Day Report Center would lead to significant cost savings for the state, along with helping some of those convicted of nonviolent crimes become constructive members of society.

Directing money to prisons diverts money from higher education and from programs aimed at helping citizens mired in poverty. Slowing investment on Corrections will lead to increasing investment in the development of a productive 21st-century West Virginian population.

Jill Kriesky is executive director of the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University; Si Kahn is executive director of Grassroots Leadership; and Dennis Sparks is Executive Director of the West Virginia Council of Churches.

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