CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For us, the math is simple: every prisoner we incarcerate equals $23,674 per year that we are not spending to give our kids a brighter future. That's $162 million each year.
Imagine a 32-year-old, drug-addicted parent who is convicted of a crime (more than 80 percent of our prisoners were convicted of a drug- or alcohol-related crime). For every year that person is in prison, he becomes more likely to learn bad habits and commit another crime when released. For every year, he becomes less connected to his children, his community, and his support system. And for every year, that's one more year he is not paying taxes.
Worst of all, it costs about $23,674 from our wallets for every year that we make this man less employable and more likely to re-offend.
That $23,674 can be put to better use. That's about what it costs to send 5 at-risk toddlers to top-notch child care programs, giving them a jump-start on life. Or employ a social worker to visit the homes of dozens of young parents, helping them break the cycle of abuse and poverty for their children. Or it could help dramatically reduce the 6-month waiting lists for substance abuse treatment, so that addicts are getting help instead of getting arrested.
The prison reform report presented by the Justice Center last month is a good start. But in the Governor's final proposal, he can and should go even further. If we are serious about curbing government waste in our prison system, other proposals should be on the table, such as:
• Requiring that judges and prosecutors see a fiscal impact statement, so that they know the outlandish cost to taxpayers when they are deciding to sentence someone.
• Accelerated parole processes, including for elderly, nonviolent prisoners. Why are we imprisoning grandmas and grandpas, and covering all of their medical expenses, when prison administrators themselves believe that they are no longer a danger to society?
• Passing a Felony Forgiveness law that allows nonviolent former inmates to eventually earn a clean record, which would allow them to work and re-acclimate.
• Creating earned-time credits for prisoners who complete rigorous substance abuse or educational programs while incarcerated.
These and other programs save money and do not lead to greater recidivism rates.
The Governor's leadership in asking for this bi-partisan report presents an unprecedented opportunity for all of us -- especially for the recent wave of fiscally conservative Republicans in both chambers -- to show we really do value our children's future over government waste.
We must seize that opportunity.
Manypenny is a Democratic delegate from Taylor County, and Smith is executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.