Prison glut and public safety

Joe DeLong, who runs West Virginia’s network of regional jails, understands full well that a simple idea to reduce overcrowding there and at state prisons falls squarely into the “devil’s in the details” category when it comes to execution.

Still, the way DeLong, originally from New Cumberland, puts the strategy is appealing.

What Mountain State residents and officials need to do, DeLong opined last week, is to determine “who really needs to be incarcerated, as opposed to just putting everybody in prison that we’re mad at.”

DeLong, who is the state regional jails director, was part of a recent panel discussion sponsored by The Associated Press in Charleston.

He was joined by Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein, state Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha; and Senate Judiciary Minority Vice-Chairman Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha.

Among the most interesting comments was an observation by DeLong about the regional jail system. It’s overcrowded, all right, but not by the types of inmates who are supposed to be held in such facilities. That’s folks convicted of relatively minor crimes and people awaiting trial.

The regional jail network has plenty of cell space for that category of inmates, DeLong explained. It’s the hundreds of convicts the jails have to accommodate because there isn’t room for them at state prisons that have created a problem.

Overcrowded prisons are a major problem, to the point that there had been some talk of building a new corrections facility. None of the four people on the panel likes that idea because, as Rubenstein pointed out, it would cost up to $200 million and require at least $30 million a year to operate.

Finding ways to keep some people out of prison, then, seems to be the key to reducing overcrowding.

There’s been lots of talk about that during the past several years, with an emphasis on giving judges more flexibility in sentencing and providing alternatives, such as day report centers, to incarceration.

DeLong suggested better “risk assessment” could give us an idea of who needs to be in prison because they’re threats to society and who can be handled safely without incarceration. In other words, we may be “mad” at some of the people in prison, but many of them may pose little or no threat to most West Virginians.

That’s an excellent idea, but with a limit. It could give us an idea of which convicts are good candidates for early release, but it also could tell us some are incorrigible thugs whose crimes are likely to escalate – folks who haven’t been handed long enough sentences.

The trouble is that once a judge has told them how long they’ll be behind bars, the sentences can’t be extended unless they commit criminal acts while in prison.

Rubenstein noted some assessment work already is being done in state prisons. That’s good, of course.

But it may be that DeLong is right in thinking more is needed to ensure we don’t curb prison overcrowding by giving the wrong people breaks on their sentences.

It’s one of many ideas we’re going to have to look at – before a federal judge makes decisions on freeing inmates for us.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at