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Editorial: West Virginia prison reform shows some hope


The state’s prison population fell by 5 percent in the last year under the 2013 prison reform, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin told the Council of State Governments meeting in Washington. Tomblin is president of the organization.

The state has cut in half the number of people it locked up in regional jails because of a lack of prison space. If the drop continues, this will reduce pressure to build another prison, at a cost of $200 million, Tomblin said.

That’s good news if the crime rate does not rise by 5 percent. The first purpose of prison is to protect the public by locking up dangerous people.

The reform effort includes drug rehabilitation and ending the revocation of parole or probation for minor violations.

West Virginia strengthened its community-based supervision, improved its risk assessments to make sure no violent criminals were released without proper supervision, and doubled down on drug courts to steer people into community-based substance abuse programs instead of prison.

Tomblin noted that the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2013 passed with bipartisan support. Unlike congressmen, West Virginian legislators work well with others.

“In West Virginia, our message is clear,” Tomblin told the council. “If you commit a crime in the Mountain State, you will get caught, you will do your time, and we’ll take reasonable, responsible steps to rehabilitate you and give you every opportunity to become a productive member of society, if that’s a step you’re willing to take.”

That is how it should be.

Public safety comes first. But prison is not the only option for the Division of Corrections. Substance abuse programs and work-release can rehabilitate some criminals, but as the governor said, the criminal has to be willing to make it work.

Public support for prison reform will last only as long as crime does not rise. So far, so good.

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