Eric Douglas Published

W.Va. Lower Than National Average For Prison Incarcerations

A line of jail cells.Lettas/Adobe Stock

A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that approximately one out of every 90 people in the United States are in the legal system — either incarcerated or on probation or parole. And the numbers of people on parole are swelling in some states, leading to more people going to jail. 

But the number of people in the system in West Virginia is on the low end compared to the national average. 

News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Wanda Bertram, the group’s communication strategist, about the report. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: What’s the big finding from the report in general? 

Bertram: We’re taking data from different reports that the government has put out that show the number of people in every state who are in prison, in a local jail, on probation, or on parole. And we put that together into graphics that apply to every state. The reason we did this is because you would think that those numbers would already exist, but all this data is coming from different places. And so there’s not really a clear picture that people can get of how many people are caught up in the criminal justice system. That matters, because even though we think about probation and parole as sort of different from incarceration, those systems drive 42 percent of prison admissions every year. So over 40 percent of people who go to prison every year, they’re coming to prison from being supervised.

Courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.

Douglas: So somebody has violated their parole, or they violated their terms of probation, and then they’re being sent back to or being sent to prison out of that?

Bertram: It’s people who have either committed a new crime, and they’re being sent to prison on a new conviction, or they have simply committed a violation with what we call a technical violation, which is where you do something that normally would not be a crime, but because the judge has told you, “don’t do that while you’re on supervision,” it can get you sent back to prison.

The majority of returns to incarceration of people on probation and parole are for these technical violations. These are often things that are very minor activities. Say you are given probation instead of incarceration — this is your first conviction. But one of the terms of your probation is that you have to complete a drug treatment class. Say you don’t show up to a couple meetings. That can get you re-incarcerated. Say, one of the terms of your probation is you have to maintain employment, but you get let go from your job. That, theoretically, can get you locked up again.

I’d say an overwhelming majority of the time, one of the conditions of probation and parole is that you have to pay some regular fees. You actually have to pay administrative fees for the cost of your own supervision. So if you fall behind in paying fees, you can end up behind bars for that. What some people might notice is that these conditions can sometimes get in the way of each other, right? If you have to maintain employment so that you can pay a bunch of fines and fees, but you also have to go to regular classes, and have regular meetings with your supervision officer, which may conflict with your employment — it’s going to be hard to do all those things at once.

You have people that end up behind bars, because they just couldn’t maintain all of these conditions. In fact, there are a lot of people that say, if I’m facing a conviction, and it’s between a short stint in prison, and a stint on probation, I would rather be in prison.

Douglas: Where do things stand? What are some of the numbers?

Bertram: The reason that we did this report, or one of the reasons we did this report, is that there are quite a lot of states, particularly liberal states, that have some low incarceration rates, and they go, “Okay, we fixed the problem of a large prison system,” when in reality, when you look at the number of people who are on supervision in those states, or when you look at the total number of people under correctional control in prison or jail, or on probation or on parole, the numbers go way up. And that’s important, because some of these probation and parole programs are really just serving to drive people into the prison system by putting them under surveillance and then violating them for some minor activity and using that as an excuse to throw them in prison. 

Courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.

Douglas: Let’s talk about West Virginia for a minute. What did you see when you looked at West Virginia?

Bertram: West Virginia actually has one of the lower total rates of correctional control of all the states that we looked at. If you’re looking at the total number of people incarcerated and supervised, West Virginia is, per capita, punishing fewer people than some of its neighbors like Virginia or Kentucky. 

Douglas: In your report it said West Virginia confines youth at one of the highest rates in the country? What’s that all about? 

Bertram: What we know is over the last 10 years, youth confinement in the U.S. has dropped dramatically. Actually, there were six states, although I couldn’t tell you what they are off the top of my head, that stopped incarcerating youth entirely during the years of the pandemic. So when we say it has one of the highest rates of youth incarceration in the country, the context is that there are many states that are no longer putting any youth in detention facilities at all.

States are looking at different ways of handling young people who are truant, or commit crimes — solutions that you can pursue in the community or ways of resisting arresting and incarcerating so many young people. So that’s certainly an area where West Virginia could still move forward.

Douglas: So we’re not 10 times higher than everybody else, because we’re just locking up all of our kids, but because so many other states have dramatically reduced their numbers. What else can you tell me about West Virginia? 

Bertram: Well, I do want to go back to a question that you asked a couple minutes ago about what the data shows us about correctional control rates and punishment rates in West Virginia. And just to point something out, which is, if you look at every state’s prison and jail, parole and probation, what you’ll see is that there are many states that appear to be a lot better on incarceration rates. Then when you add in probation and parole, they look a lot worse.

Connecticut, for instance, you compare West Virginia with Connecticut, they have relatively similar incarceration rates. But Connecticut, when you add in probation, you add in local jails, you add in parole, and all of a sudden, you have a much, much higher rate than West Virginia, because Connecticut is putting so many people on probation right now. We’re actually going to release an analysis about Connecticut where we show that there are many people under supervision in that state who don’t need to be.

So, part of the purpose of our report is to call out some of these states that have a tendency to think of themselves as really good or really progressive on criminal justice, when in reality they are putting a lot of their residents under forms of punishment that are, while not incarceration, still extremely difficult.