In an excellent recent article in the Gazette, Associated Press reporters Vicki Smith and Lawrence Messina asked the question: "Can another study end state inmate overcrowding?" The answer is a resounding "NO".
This was echoed in comments offered by state Department of Corrections and Regional Jails Authority officials and Fayette County Democratic Sen. Bill Laird. The study in question will be produced by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative commissioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin with bipartisan support from the West Virginia Legislature and with support from the West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative will be coordinated by the nonpartisan Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. Researchers will conduct a comprehensive and thorough review of West Virginia's public safety policies. They will compile a report and make recommendations to reduce West Virginia's prison population without compromising public safety.
While this study and report alone will not fix the problem of prison overcrowding, it might serve as a catalyst to engage, educate and inform the people of West Virginia on how serious a problem the growth of West Virginia's prison population has become. It may also inform West Virginia citizens as to how indecisive and inactive West Virginia's legislative, judicial and executive branches of government have been for more than a decade neglecting to address this well documented problem.
Once the West Virginia citizens understand that West Virginia's growing prison population is depleting the work force, draining funds from public education, higher education, work force development and economic development. That it is destabilizing neighbors and families. And that it is actually compromising public safety, then they might demand that the legislative, judicial and executives branches of government cease the political posturing and work to address the prison overcrowding problem.
Furthermore, the report may lead to discussions that will shed light to where private citizens and business leaders will be able to see that the $275 million combined budgets of the state Department of Corrections, Regional Jails Authority, Division of Juvenile Services and Parole Board and the over $100 million dollars spent to support more than 5,000 children of prisoners is unsustainable.
Furthermore, the report may open the eyes of many to the nexus between 7,000 children who drop out of school each year, 7,000 youth who appear before a judge or probation officer and the nearly 7,000 prison inmates.
None of the above information will be in the report, but it is already readily available. Unfortunately few people are paying attention to it. But people will pay attention to a report compiled by credentialed out-of-town experts. The report can be used to draw attention to these other related issues. The report may be like the pulling the dangling thread of the proverbial cheap sweater that unravels the whole garment.
The report may give Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Rick Thompson and Supreme Court Chief Justice Menis Ketchum, the political cover they need to lead the three branches of government to work together to address the growth in West Virginia's prison population and the corresponding overcrowded prison conditions.
Finally, the report may rally public support, to where we the people say to our elected officials: No more studies, reports, commissions or political rhetoric. We the people must encourage, support, push and demand that our elected officials address the prison population growth and corresponding overcrowding conditions during the 2013 general legislative session, with or without another report.
Watts is senior pastor at Grace Bible Church in Charleston.