CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The two biggest problems facing the 2013 Legislature are West Virginia's prison overcrowding nightmare and pathetic learning levels among Mountain State school students.
So far, the Senate under President Jeff Kessler and House under Speaker Rick Thompson seem to be facing the dilemmas intelligently.
Back in the 1970s, West Virginia had only about 1,000 convicts, but the number soared past 7,000, thanks to harsh drug laws and the lock-'em-up mentality. West Virginians didn't turn seven times more criminal, but enforcement became seven times more vengeful. At the current rate of growth, the inmate population is projected to reach 10,000.
Now the state faces the dismal prospect of building another $200 million prison or finding a wiser solution.
A reform plan by Gov. Tomblin would cut cell occupancy by putting more nonviolent felons on probation or parole -- through early release, closer supervision and mandatory drug treatment. The state's new drug courts -- 20 for adults, 16 for juveniles -- likewise offer hope to rescue addicts and return them to worthwhile lives at low cost.
Go for it, we say. Only dangerous people should be locked in steel cages. Keeping the nonviolent free and productive in society is better for offenders, for taxpayers and the whole state.