CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sens. Corey Palumbo, Dan Foster and their colleagues should be commended for their efforts to advance Senate Bill 342, a bill designed to begin to address West Virginia's prison overcrowding problem.
The bill would expand substance abuse treatment opportunities for eligible inmates and create two pilot offender re-entry programs. This is not a perfect bill, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Senate Bill 342 could be an important first step in helping West Virginia to address its overcrowded prisons without having to construct a new $200 million prison at taxpayers' expense. It may also stimulate some much-needed public discussion on this critical issue.
Most Americans, both conservatives and liberals, have shown little concern or compassion for offenders. Most of us have embraced the philosophy that being tough on crime and criminals by locking them up would ensure our safety. We have given little thought to the financial cost and the social toll that mass incarceration, particularly of non-violent offenders, has on our society. There are over 2.3 million people in the United States in prisons and jails at an annual cost of nearly $70 billion.
In West Virginia, our prison population has ballooned from 1,575 in 1990 to over 7,000 today. There are another 2,700 inmates in the Regional Jail System and over 400 youth in the juvenile correction and detention centers. The cost to house all these individuals is over a quarter of a billion dollars annually.
Our prisons and jails have become our economic response to the surplus labor of under-educated, under-skilled and unemployable, poor people. Incarceration has also been a major response to our social and behavioral health issues evidenced by the large number of people incarcerated who have a substance abuse and/or mental health issue.
I expressed this view during the meeting of the Governor's Commission on Prison Overcrowding held at the Stonewall Resort in 2008. I stated that if coal operators in West Virginia needed 130,000 coal miners today as they did in the 1920's and 30's, if the U.S. military would still accept high school dropouts, if West Virginia was still constructing tunnels through the mountains and if the steel mills and chemical plants were still growing and expanding, then we would not be incarcerating poor people at the current rates.
The chilling silence in the room after my comments confirmed that a sensitive nerve had been touched.
The last three governors; Underwood, Wise and Manchin and the associated legislatures, all chose to kick the prison overcrowding can down the road. The can has reached the end of the road, crashed into a stone wall and has ricocheted back at us. We now have to deal with this problem.
West Virginia's growing prison population and corresponding over-crowding prison conditions is a sign of a problem that is much more severe and complicated than there merely being no room in the prison inn.
Instead it is the warning signal of a social and economic tsunami gaining momentum from our growing substance abuse and mental health crisis which results in a growing number of people being non-productive and unemployable. We must develop and implement a plan to address the root cause of this problem, that being the break down of the family, poor educational outcomes for youth and our growing substance abuse pandemic. If we fail to do so, then, this encroaching social and economic tsunami is going to crash down on us with a crushing force and with devastating and untold social and economic consequences from which we may not be able to recover.
Watts is senior pastor at Grace Bible Church in Charleston.