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W.Va. might need another prison

GRANDMA Wenzel was born in Wheeling, which explains her selection of a house at the top of the steep hill on Hulda Avenue as her family's residence in Cleveland.

How steep was that hill?

At 9, I learned to start bicycling from the top of the hill when the light turned red at the bottom.

By the time I reached the intersection, the light would turn green and I would be traveling 35 miles per hour, according to the speedometer attached to the handlebars.

A half-century later, I realize how foolish I was.

Anything could have happened on the way down, but children believe they are indestructible, toothpick arms and all.

But there was one dangerous risk even a 9-year-old kid would never take on Hulda Avenue in Cleveland in 1962, and that was to go out after dark.

The neighborhood had changed over the 40 years since my grandparents had first moved into their house.

By the 1960s, the parents of the baby-boom generation had moved out to the suburbs seeking bigger houses with bigger yards.

People who grew up during the Depression wanted a better life for their children, far from the cities where traffic and factories fouled the air.

The children were many when my mother was growing up, but few when I was a kid.

Crime moved in as the families moved out, leaving many a widow behind.

Grandchildren would come in from the suburbs to visit grandma in the big city every Sunday.

But their parents made sure they left and were safely back in suburbia before the streetlights came on.

Now what is this nonsense about "prison overcrowding" in West Virginia?

We have fewer than 8,000 people in the state's prisons — which means more than 1.8 million Mountaineers are free to leave their homes after dark.

If the state's prisons are indeed overcrowded, build more. The Department of Corrections budget is a bargain at less than 4 percent of state spending.

Nationally, the violent crime rate tripled from 1960 to 1980 and stayed that way, thanks in no small measure to half-baked ideas about rehabilitation.

Law-abiding, church-going, taxpaying, job-holding citizens who never ducked jury duty or the draft became prisoners of their own homes after dark because of the very genuine fear of being mugged.

The tide began turning in the 1990s as states lengthened sentences and eased gun laws. The violent crime rate nationally is at a 40-year low.

But we still have a way to go.

This explains my reaction to putting 2.3 million criminals behind bars nationally: Better them than me.

Not everyone agrees. Writing for al-Jazeera, filmmakers Michael Montgomery and Monica Lam of the Center for Investigative Reporting were alarmed.

"The U.S. locks up more people than any other country in the world, spending over $80 billion each year to keep some two million prisoners behind bars," they wrote.

"Over the past three decades, tough sentencing laws have contributed to a doubling of the country's prison population, with laws commonly known as 'three strikes and you're out' mandating life sentences for a wide range of crimes."

That $80 billion a year is a bargain considering that Apple's revenues last year were $156 billion or double what we spend on prisons.

Protecting me from cutthroats and murderers is more important than enabling some tweener downloading Justin Bieber's latest hit.

Oh, and we spend 10 times as much on K-12 education, so I do not want to hear that baloney about how we are depriving schools by locking up criminals.

The argument that only violent criminals should go to prison is also hooey.

Does anyone think Bernie Madoff should not be in prison? Or former Gov. Rod Blagojevich? Or Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of Enron?

America may lead the world in people in prison, but we do not lead the first world in crime rate.

England's crime rate is double ours. Gun control and a low incarceration rate carry a heavy price.

That is a price I do not wish to pay.

Surber's email address is


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