Sustained Outrage

One in 68


That’s the number of adult West Virginians under correctional control: in prison, or in jail, or on parole or on probation.

The good news is that number is low, relatively speaking, compared to the national average, which is one in 31. It is also low compared to neighboring states: Kentucky (one in 35), Maryland (one in 27), Ohio (one in 25),  Pennsylvania (one in 28) and Virginia (one in 46).

But that’s still a lot, particularly when you consider that 25 years ago, the figure for West Virginia was only one in 226 adults. (Has crime really tripled over that period?)

All these figures come from a study by the Pew Center on the States that was published in March. I went back to look at this study after it was mentioned in the report submitted to Gov. Joe Manchin by the Governor’s Commission on Prison Overcrowding, and a few points bear repeating.

According to the Pew study, West Virginia spent $181 million on corrections (or 4.7 percent of the general fund) in 2008, as opposed to almost $11 million on probation, which translates into six cents on probation for every dollar spent on corrections.

And with states actively looking for ways to save money, it is often the probation budgets that face cuts:

Across the nation, tight budgets are jeopardizing the basics of community supervision: caseloads, services and day-to-day resources.

Without adequate resources and authority, community supervision agencies are hard-pressed to fulfill their traditional case management workloads, let alone adequately handle their new responsibilities. The huge increase in corrections spending has favored prisons over probation and parole by nearly nine to one.

West Virginia ranks 49th nationwide in percentage of its adult citizens who are under correctional control, and that’s laudable. But what’s more troublesome is that roughly half of those are actually incarcerated, meaning that for every person on parole or probation, there is someone who is locked up. This is a higher proportion than 45 other states, and certainly a major factor in the overcrowding problems identified in the commission’s report.

It’s easy — and often politically convenient — to be “tough on crime.” And, as the commission’s report points out, the average length of prison sentences  has increased between 2001 and 2006 in every category of crime except sex crimes. The Pew report does good job of explaining how just locking up every offender is not a viable longterm strategy:

More recently, scholars have explored the tipping point concept in incarceration on a 50-state basis. A 2006 study suggests that, after exceeding a threshold in the range of 325 to 430 inmates per 100,000 residents, incarceration fails to reduce crime—and may even increase it. Imprisonment was more useful, the authors argue, when state incarceration rates hovered around 111 per 100,000 in the 1970s, or around 207 per 100,000 in the 1980s, than when they accelerated to 397 per 100,000 in the 1990s. Today, of course, the national rate of imprisonment is significantly higher—506 per 100,000.

Today, it is widely agreed that deterrence is more a function of a sanction’s certainty and swiftness than its severity. This means that the 36th month of a 3-year prison term costs taxpayers just as much as the first month, but its value as a deterrent is far less. Unfortunately, the corrections system has put more and more of its eggs into the severity basket, spending billions to extend prison terms—for property and drug offenders as well as violent and sex offenders—but doing little to raise the chances that criminals and supervision violators are caught and brought quickly to justice.

If my math is right, West Virginia has roughly 710 inmates per 100,000 in population. And while no one is saying there aren’t people who deserve to be removed from society for a long time — sometimes their entire lives — the truth is that most convicts are going to be released back into society. Perhaps its time that our spending on prisons vs. probation and parole more closely reflect the one-to-one ratio of incarcerated to those in community corrections, rather than the pennies on the dollar that we’re spending now.