There was an interesting article in the Beckley Register-Herald this morning, about the downward trend that we are seeing in West Virginia with misdemeanor sentences involving jail time. However, there were two exceptions – one of which was Monroe County, which went from 20 misdemeanor jail sentences in 2008, and only 5 the year before, to 34 this year.
Every county could spend every dime they own to incarcerate all of those who deserve to be incarcerated, but its just not worth it. Especially now, West Virginia counties (and the State) need to learn to live within their means. As property values are decreasing, West Virginia counties are raising their property taxes, as if properties values have been skyrocketing. But they haven’t. County spending has been the only thing skyrocketing, and they have to pay for it somehow. This is not the fault of the criminal justice system, its mostly the fault of the school systems (who get about 80% of the county budget). Just take a look a line-itemed explanation of how much money they spend and what they spend it on. In contrast, the local budgets dealing with law enforcement and criminal justice, are minute. Still though, the same citizens who are complaining that the prosecutors and judges are not tough enough on crime, will be the first to complain when they get taxed to death by the county. These people will never be able to be pleased.
We should limit those we incarcerate to dangerous persons – persons who need to be behind bars. Why spend our money using incarceration as a punishment when there are other forms of punishment that cost less, or are free? Whatever happened to community service?
Part of the problem here is that we have turned the criminal justice system into a debt collection service. Defendants agree to pay restitution, or they are ordered to pay restitution. And the threat of incarceration, in the form of a suspended sentence or contingency, is held over their head. When they don’t pay, they get sent to jail. And they usually don’t pay. The overwhelming number of criminal defendants have no source of income. They don’t really need an income in West Virginia. They know that the taxpayers will take care of them one way or the other.
Then you have these alleged victims, who instead of filing a civil suit in magistrate court, camp out on the prosecutor or magistrate’s door step, demanding that, as a voter, they have these individuals arrested and jailed until they are paid. In the end, the county, and hence the taxpayers, end up footing the bill for these people to be incarcerated. In a sense, we have gone back to the old system of debtor jails. I would guess that there are more regional jail inmates who are there for property crimes or financial crimes rather than for violent crime – which actually is pretty rare in most of rural southern West Virginia. And most of those would not be in there if they could come up with the money to pay “restitution.”
Well I say let the alleged victims sue them and obtain a civil judgment for the money. Why should we all have to pay for it? Or, in those cases that are clearly very “criminal,” the sentencing magistrate can always, and almost does always, award a judgement against the defendant. But payment of those amounts does not have to always exist under the threat of incarceration. The fact is that you are always going to have these types of poor-excuses for citizens causing problems and cheating people out of money. Every community has them. There’s really nothing we can do about it that is worth the price.
– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney