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Criminal justice presents difficult choices

Politicians hate to be tagged as soft on crime.

Many careers have been wounded, even ended, because of a perception that a candidate is more concerned about the assailant than the victim.

That fear is a strong undercurrent  as the Legislature works on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's bill to ease prison overcrowding.

The legislation is based on a report by Justice Reinvestment of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

That report said West Virginia could ease prison overcrowding and save money on corrections by lowering recidivism through better alcohol and drug treatment programs and increased supervision when inmates are released.

Non-violent offenders would be released from jail six months before their sentences are up and entered into a supervised program with substance abuse treatment if necessary.

That's one of the provisions  giving some lawmakers pause.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, believes it's a mistake to let even non-violent offenders out early. He believes,as a matter of principle  that early release falls short of justice.

Other lawmakers no doubt feel the same. But there's also a political concern, particularly among Democrats.

Democrats have a narrow 54-46 majority in the House. The Republicans have momentum following the last election and are  gunning to take control of the House in 2014.

A Democrat who supports the prison reform bill could find himself with the "soft on crime" label.

It would be challenging to explain why supervised release and substance abuse treatment is actually an economic issue - that it saves taxpayer money and increases the chances that a former prisoner will get his life back together.

Worse yet, what if a non-violent offender commits a serious crime after being released early?

That's bound to happen, and when it does, a political opponent may seize that opportunity.

House Democrats badly want Republicans to come along with them on prison reform. If it's a bipartisan bill, both political parties have cover when the "soft on crime" bomb is lobbed.

The practical reality is that the concept of more treatment and supervision makes sense.

It's working in Texas of all places, which is notoriously tough on crime.

West Virginia must do something about prison overcrowding. If not, there may be a vote coming on whether to spend $200 million to build a new prison.

Nobody in either political party wants to make that call.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.



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