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Sara Bird: Stop jailing nonviolent offenders

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week, the Republican caucus outlined their proposal to turn West Virginia around by working with "like-minded friends across the aisle" to move forward a "pro-jobs, pro-growth agenda." The focus on economic security was reiterated in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's State of the State address where he expressed his dedication to "prepare for our future by taking action" -- to keep our families safe and to build opportunities for the future.

Both Tomblin and the Republican caucus focused on the state's bottom line, vowing to invest in programs that will strengthen West Virginia's economy. They spoke of education reform, the drain prison overcrowding is placing on county budgets, and the need to address the devastating impacts of poverty in Appalachia.

We could not agree more, and commend our elected officials' commitment to decrease state spending and invest in West Virginians. We welcome legislative proposals that will do just that: Take action.

The problem of overcrowding in West Virginia prisons has been the subject of both litigation and careful study. Our prisons are stuffed with inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses, particularly individuals suffering from drug addictions serving time for controlled-substance offenses.

As of 2010, 72.6 percent of all new prison admissions were for nonviolent offenses. This "lock-them-up" mentality has resulted in West Virginia's prison population growing at three times the national rate while we rack up the nation's second highest growth in general revenue appropriations on corrections. These harsh policies result in huge price tags for taxpayers ($24,266 on average per inmate), remove mothers and fathers from their families, and have been ineffective in reducing the negative effects of drugs on our communities.

Even with such spending, West Virginia has not seen a decrease in crime. Taxpayers deserve a better public-safety return on their investment. It is time for lawmakers to invest in real solutions, like community-based treatment facilities, which offer a cure rather than Band-Aids for addiction, while costing less to operate. Seven studies of West Virginia's criminal justice system have been conducted since 2002 and each has proposed the same solutions: cost-effective, research-based alternatives to incarceration, which emphasize treatment and community supervision.

Gov. Tomblin has endorsed recommendations put forth by the National Council of State Governments, but the proposals do not go far enough to solve the problem -- nor do they claim to. Even if this reform package is implemented in its entirety, West Virginia's prisons will be operating 1,500 prisoners over capacity in 2018. That is six more years of the same problem. The cause is clear: The recommendations do not correct the misguided use of prison for low-level nonviolent offenses. West Virginians deserve better.

Legislators across party lines agree we need to control spending, reduce overcrowding and protect public safety. Now is the time for legislators to step up to the plate and push real reforms. The bottom line is West Virginia needs to invest in our citizens' future by implementing solutions that work.

Our legislators have vowed to create a fiscally sound future for West Virginia. Let's hold them to it.

Bird is president of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia. This commentary was submitted on behalf of the board.


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