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Could day plan cut cost of West Virginia prisons?

February 16, 2005

In West Virginia, the desire to get tough on crime is colliding with the cost of doing so.

So say two advocacy groups that on Tuesday released a report calling for cheaper solutions for nonviolent offenders. Given the dollars involved, it deserves a close look.

Millions in prison costs could be saved each year by creating a statewide day-reporting program, according to the Appalachian Institute of Wheeling Jesuit University and the West Virginia Council of Churches.

According to The Associated Press, the report was co-sponsored by Grassroots Leadership, a Charlotte, N.C., group that focuses on the criminal-justice system.

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The report says in the last 10 years, the number of people incarcerated has doubled to more than 5,000. In 2001, the prison population increased by 9.3 percent, even though West Virginia's population and its crime rate held steady.

The groups' concern is that while education funding hasn't increased much since 1990, the state has spent $120 million on prison construction.

They hope that by helping devise lower-cost alternatives to prison, the state could free up cash for need-based scholarships.

So what's the answer?

The groups propose a statewide reporting system, where nonviolent offenders would check in on a daily basis.

There is already a model in place. The Lee Day Report Center now handles those convicted of nonviolent crimes in Marshall, Ohio, Hancock and Brooke counties.

The groups claim that by expanding the program to seven centers statewide, $42 million to $63 million in incarceration costs could be saved.

However, there are skeptics, who note that when judges provide defendants with alternative sentences, they often re-offend and go into the prison system.

Perhaps the problem in those cases is that offenders aren't being screened well enough to determine their chances of success in an alternative program.

But if one of the root causes of crime is a lack of education, it follows that getting more of the state's citizens into higher education would help curb crime.

Lawmakers need to work on finding a balance between protecting the public even while they enable more people to go to college.

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