West Virginia prison population

The following editorial appeared in The Journal on Nov. 25:

A recent report released by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative compared the incarceration rates of each state with those of countries around the world. It found West Virginia, were it to be viewed as a sovereign nation, has a higher rate of women in prison than anywhere else in the world. Of course, every state in the country has a higher rate of female inmates than the international average.

“The female inmate population is our fastest growing segment in West Virginia,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin acknowledged.

It is true, the numbers are surprising. West Virginia incarcerates 273 women per 100,000 residents. By comparison, China incarcerates 71 per 100,000; and the United Arab Emirates incarcerates 51. That is a problem, according to the folks at Prison Policy Initiative.

“The statistics revealed by this report are simple and staggering” PPI officials wrote in their report. “They suggest that states cannot remain complacent about how many women they incarcerate. Women should be a mainstay of any state policy discussions on the economical and effective use of incarceration if we hope to incarcerate fewer women.”

Why? Why single out women? Why not simply hope to incarcerate fewer human beings?

It may be true there are more women committing crimes for which they are convicted in West Virginia. And our justice system deals with those convictions by sending them to prison. If the problem is the manner in which our justice system handles those who have committed crimes, fine. That is most certainly a discussion worth having.

Meanwhile, in some of the countries noted by the Prison Policy Initiative for having such low rates of incarcerated women, the reasons may be that those countries do not judge women as full members of society capable of committing crimes. And, of course, some of those countries do not have a lot of women in prisons because they march women out to be beheaded for adultery, and they are in the ground rather than in prison.

Yes, it is a problem that the Mountain State’s prison population — both men and women — is so large. But addressing that problem should not begin with breaking down the population into groups more deserving of attention than others.



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