The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

January 30, 2010

Council takes look at inmate drug programs

CHARLESTON — Plowing money into freeing non-violent convicts of drugs and alcohol makes more sense to the West Virginia Council of Churches than building new prisons.

After all, reasons the executive director, the Rev. Dennis Sparks, any new penal institution erected is destined to become overcrowded, and that only puts the state back where it is now.

“We’ve got to move beyond just being tough on crime,” Sparks said in an interview last week.

“That has not worked in West Virginia. It is a failed system. We’re producing more criminals. As our children grow up and go through the school system, and the juvenile system, they wind up quite often being in a high percentage rate in our prisons.”

While West Virginia has enjoyed a comparative low crime rate in recent years, Sparks says the criminal population continues to grow here.

“We hope the Legislature will encourage preventative programs, treatment programs, over more brick and mortar,” he said.

“We think that is vital. If we build a new prison, it will simply result in overcrowding that prison in a very few short years, and we will back at the same rate.”

An interims panel devoted to prisons and regional jails has been eyeing a different attitude, one that focuses on treating drug and alcohol addicts, who make up the majority of inmates.

“As we said back in 2004, that’s one of the main causes that would lead West Virginia in going bankrupt,” Sparks said.

“Many other states are trying to empty their prisons. We believe we need to reduce the prison population.”

Sparks says 90 percent of all inmates are non-violent, but simply aren’t ready to rejoin society because of addictions that are treatable.

Keeping non-violent offenders locked away merely causes them to develop worse attitudes and behaviors, he said.

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