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Re-purposing Salem solves two problems

State officials have been under pressure to solve two pressing criminal justice problems.

A partial solution to one may also turn out to be a partial solution to the other.

On the one hand, critics complained that the state has run the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, Harrison County, too much like a prison and not enough like a juvenile justice system.

They filed suit to force the state to change that.

On the other hand, the state lacks prison space. That has forced the 10 regional jails to serve as mini-penitentiaries until space opens up in actual prisons.

In response to the suit, state officials propose to send 49 juveniles now held at Salem to other facilities for more appropriate treatment.

The administration proposes that the state then turn the vacated facility into a minimum- to medium-security prison for 300 or more adults.

"We believe we can do a great job of rehabilitating our juveniles at our existing facilities, and - for much less cost than it would take to comply with the judge's order - we'll be able to get well in excess of 300 adult inmates into Salem," said Rob Alsop, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's chief of staff.

Prison space at Salem prison would be one step toward solving the state's prison overcrowding problem.

The state has about 7,500 people in prison and as many as 1,800 people in regional jails, waiting for space to open so they can go to prison.

Tomblin introduced legislation to ease overcrowding by adopting some of the reforms recommended by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments.

That includes shortening some sentences, releasing some prisoners earlier with continuing supervision, and buttressing community programs such as day reporting centers.

Certainly drug treatment that works is preferable to the expensive incarceration of people who have drug problems.

But no one should pretend that 7,500 people are placed in prison for smoking a joint or two. Prison space is too precious to be wasted on such people.  

Prison reforms have their place, but so do prisons. 


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