Proposal: Pay states to change sentencing guidelines, reduce prison populations

Mark Richardson

In West Virginia, 11,000 people are behind bars, mostly in state prisons and local jails. A new proposal has surfaced to bring those numbers down but it would require approval from Congress.

The Public Safety and Prison Reduction Act would pay states to rethink their sentencing policies and reduce their prison populations.

Hernandez Stroud, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, pointed to state prisons as the core issue, holding 87% of people incarcerated in the U.S.

“Congress could help states break the cycle of excessive imprisonment and its devastating impact on families and communities,” Stroud contended. “By offering funding as an incentive to both shrink state prison populations and implement humane alternatives.”

The Public Safety and Prison Reduction Act has yet to be introduced in Congress. Its $1 billion estimated price tag may be among the reasons.

Stroud noted the Brennan Center proposal would emphasize accountability and community input. States would be required to partner with researchers and local stakeholders, including formerly incarcerated people, to track the impact of their reforms. Stroud believes it could also help to right some of the problems in the criminal justice system, such as wrongful convictions or extreme sentencing.

“This legislation could send a powerful message to the nation that some issues are bigger than partisan politics,” Stroud asserted. “Like delivering public safety while promoting a fair and humane justice system.”

While the number of people incarcerated in West Virginia is comparatively small, a Prison Policy Initiative report found the state has an incarceration rate of 674 per 100,000 people. According to the proposal, if the 25 states with the largest prison populations could reduce them by 20%, nearly 180,000 fewer people would be behind bars.