Some West Virginia legislators seem ready to do almost whatever it takes to reduce the inmate population at state prisons and regional jails. They should pause to remember one of the fundamental reasons why we lock some people up - to safeguard law-abiding residents of the state.
Overcrowding has reached near-crisis levels in the state corrections system. Prisons are overcrowded. About 1,700 convicts who should be in them are being housed at regional jails, some of which, in consequence, also are packed beyond design capacity.
"We are one incident away from a potential serious problem, a riot," worried state Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, last week.
Many lawmakers fear that unless a plan to deal with overcrowding is found, federal judges may step in and order the state to release some convicts, regardless of the consequences. It has happened before, most notably in California last year.
Prison overcrowding has been a problem for several years. But the daunting cost of a new prison - as much as $250 million - has prompted lawmakers to try various other alternatives. Reduced sentences for some non-violent offenders, along with a variety of options such as "day-report" centers, have been tested.
Last week, legislators were told drug criminals are the primary reason for overcrowding - and many of them should receive treatment for their addictions, rather than incarceration. "We've got to deal with their substance abuse, not just lock them up," urged state Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha.
At the urging of Foster and many others, legislators are considering plans to improve substance abuse treatment in jails and prisons. Also on the table are suggestions inmates could reduce sentences by taking classes while imprisoned. And, so-called "low-level" offenders might be kept out of prison altogether.
Indeed, many of those behind bars would benefit from treatment for their addictions. And some "low-level" offenders may be all right if allowed to avoid incarceration.
But many of those in regional jails and prisons are dangers to society. Using alternatives that risk sending them back out on the streets to endanger others would be a bad idea.
Most West Virginians probably would like to avoid getting stuck with the enormous bills to build and operate a new prison. But the prospect of vicious criminals set free is even less appealing. Before approving major legislation, lawmakers should ensure they are not taking that risk.