As I was writing the post yesterday about the downward trend in West Virginia misdemeanor sentencing, I was thinking, well what about felony sentencing? The same principles apply. Why fill up our prisons – at our cost – for property crimes and other non-violent offenders. What’s the point? With all the federal civil rights requirements, we have to provide inmates with medical care, etc. With the perpetrators in prison, the victims aren’t getting any restitution anyways. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.
Today the Register-Herald had just such an article on this topic, titled “WVU examining prison sentencing: Researchers looking at ways to ease overcrowding in jails.” It quoted senators Kessler and Chafin, both of whom are lawyers:
Back when he was handling criminal law, Chafin recalled how a defendant in court for a property crime likely could have avoided a prison stretch.
But when the victim and his family appeared in court, the sitting judge clearly was moved and came down hard on the defendant, the senator said.
“First thing you know, the guy’s locked up one to 10 and really didn’t need to go,” Chafin said.
Kessler discussed the increase of punishments for many of West Virginia’s criminal statutes:
Within the past decade, Kessler pointed out afterward, the Legislature has raised penalties on two to three dozen statutes, often in response to a sensational crime given voluminous media attention.
“It seems that we do it piecemeal often times in knee-jerk reaction to some type of crime that happens in our communities that gets a lot of headlines,” he said.
“So we go out and double the penalties on those.”
Basically, WVU will be conducting research, and in the end, hopefully someone in the state legislature will be promoting reform with the goal of reducing the state prison population. Mainly this can be done through the decrease of penalty ranges for common property-type crimes, and the promotion and creation of other forms of alternative sentencing. But in the end, we will always have the problem of circuit judges facing reelection, and the goal of reducing prison population will never be an election-winner. Maybe we should also reform the selection procedures for circuit judges, and take politics out of the equation.
– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney