The politics of prison reform

If there’s one thing a politician hates it’s to be tagged as soft on crime.  Many political careers have been wounded, and even ended, because of a perception that a candidate is more concerned about the assailant than the victim.

And that fear is a strong undercurrent here at the State Capitol as the West Virginia Legislature works on Governor Tomblin’s bill to ease prison overcrowding.

The legislation is based on a report by Justice Reinvestment of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

That report said West Virginia could ease prison overcrowding and save money on corrections by lowering recidivism through better alcohol and drug treatment programs and increased supervision when inmates are released.

Non-violent offenders would be released from jail six months before their sentence is up and entered into an intensive supervised program with substance abuse treatment, if necessary.

That’s one of the provisions that’s giving some lawmakers pause.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha) believes it’s a mistake to let even non-violent offenders out early.  He believes, as a matter of principle, that early release falls short of justice.

Other lawmakers no doubt feel the same.  But there’s also a political concern, particularly by Democrats.

Democrats have a narrow 54-46 majority in the House.  The Republicans have momentum following the last election and they’re gunning to take control of the House in 2014.

A Democrat who supports the prison reform bill could find himself with the “soft on crime” label.  It would be challenging, in the face of that, to explain why supervised release and substance abuse treatment is actually an economic issue: it saves taxpayer money and increases the chances a former prisoner will get his life back together.

Worse yet, what if a non-violent offender commits a serious crime after being released early?  That’s bound to happen one day, and when it does, a political opponent may seize that opportunity.

House Democrats badly want Republicans to come along with them on prison reform.  If it’s a bipartisan bill, both political parties have cover when the “soft on crime” bomb is lobbed.

The practical reality is that the concept of more treatment and supervision makes sense.  It’s working in Texas of all places, which is notoriously tough on crime.  There the prison population has leveled out.

West Virginia must do something about prison overcrowding. If not, there may be a vote coming in the not too distant future whether to spend $200 million to build a new prison.

Nobody in either political party wants to make that call.



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