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Robert K. Holliday: Don't tear down, build up

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alternative sentence plans should be quickly developed for the correctional facility at near Salem. An improved, modern approach should be tried.

We have the inventors and qualified state personnel to diagram changes, and we should think long and carefully about getting experts from out of the state. Many well-built structures in the state can be renovated and new programs put in place. For example, those persons addicted to drugs and alcohol are our No. 1 criminal justice troubles. Treatment must take place. Some state circuit judges point out that over 80 percent of those persons appearing before them have been charged with drug-regulated crimes.

Any governor, mayor or county official knows the public should be protected from criminals. We do not want undesirable people released to our communities, so methods for curing and healing must continue.

But "out of sight, out of mind" is not the right approach.

I urge all Democrats and Republicans to move forward to improve our correctional system. In the last decade national per capita expenditures of the nation's prison population has more than tripled. Such should not happen in costs if the correctional people do their professional jobs and use property already available, such as at Salem.

Some citizens are struggling to balance a checkbook and make ends meet. Think how your dentist, your vehicle mechanic, and others will have money taken out of their pocketbooks to build prison beds and so on. Splendid alternative sentencing must be adopted, using brains much more than bricks.

I suppose the public will not only permit but will support alternative sentences. A poll of hundreds of Alabama residents asked how they would sentence 20 convicted criminals. After some explanation of costs and alternatives for lesser crimes, the same people polled resentenced most of those to intermediary options. This demonstrated that an educated, civic person would sustain and back alternative sentencing.

Once you open people's minds to the "prison only" problem, we must convince them that viable alternatives do exist that yet protect their personal safety. Never lose sight of the fact that this is a very human issue. Many persons know there are programs nationwide where violent or habitual felons are assured prison beds, only because many of the nuisance shoplifters, technical probation individuals, or petty thieves are placed elsewhere.

Make the public understand that dangerous criminals are still put in prison. Intermediate sanctions are necessary to reintegrate offenders so they later can have better lives when discharged. The Division of Corrections surely knows that Salem with over 50 acres and its structures has many potential and useful correctional purposes. It seems to me more programs have been tried at Salem since it opened in 1897 than anywhere else.

We want to sentence smarter, not just tougher. If we can provide useful and effective alternatives without too costly incarceration, we all benefit.

Reforming corrections is also a job of communities, not just the state. In New York there are several communities that provide housing and life services for women released early from prison so they can begin their reintegration into society.

In Arizona a program for nonviolent felons, modeled after one in New York, is linked to the offender's ability to pay.

Prisons always hold a role in the criminal justice system, but they cannot play the central role as they have in the past.

The judiciary, executive and legislative branches must have reasonable expectations, pilot programs, evaluations and ongoing communications. In this extensive approach, we can save millions of dollars and be proud of efforts that slash crime.

We cannot build our way out of the current prison crisis. We can manage and control our prison growth and maintain the integrity in the criminal justice system. By carefully developing sensible policies and a wide range of sanctions in implementing an aggressive public education initiative, we can have offenders accountable to the public and the legal system.

As well, remember that all this is a human issue and not an institutional one. This is a people's perception of their personal safety and their hard-earned money. Consensus building is essential.

Mental health, education, safety and other items are on the list for legislative action, but constituents want more jobs than anything. The money by lowering the budget and placing appropriate revenues on the table will put us marching forward.

Holliday is former state senator from Fayette County who worked on correctional issues while in the Legislature.


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