Prison Reform Bill Introduced

CHARLESTON (AP) – Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin introduced a bill Tuesday intended to lower costs and ease overcrowding in the state’s filled-to-capacity prison system.

The governor’s bill would increase supervision and drug treatment programs for inmates upon release and reduce the number of parolees who are returned to prison for minor violations.

A main provision would mandate that non-violent offenders be released six months early into supervised programs. The bill also provides for one year of mandatory supervision for violent offenders after their regularly scheduled release.

Jim Rubenstein, the state prison commissioner, has said repeatedly that overcrowding in the prisons is at a crisis state. All 5,400 beds in West Virginia prisons are occupied and there are nearly 1,900 prisoners being housed at regional jails that were never meant for long stays.

It’s estimated that the bill would stop prison growth in the state, but not dramatically reduce the number of prisoners already behind bars. The push comes as a number of states – including those headed by conservative Republicans, many of whom once backed tougher penalties for low-level drug offenders and nonviolent felons – favor a review of sentencing laws that contributed to a fourfold increase in prison costs over two decades.

The prison population grew 20 percent from 2007 to 2012. The bill estimates that halting that rate of growth would save $115 million over the next five years, even after accounting for new expenses for drug treatment and supervised release.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, was hopeful that the bill would pass without partisan objections.

“I hope it’s not a knee-jerk reaction, ‘We don’t want to be weak on crime,’ because it’s not. It’s being smart on crime,” Kessler said. “If folks are a danger to society we are prepared to lock them up and throw away the key.”

The bill closely mirrors the recommendations of a recent study on how to reduce overcrowding in the prison system. The study – Justice Reinvestment – found that many prisoners were maxing out their sentences and being released with no further supervision, making them much more likely to be arrested again. The study’s recommendations, which have been implemented successfully in Oklahoma and Texas, found that a small reinvestment in supervision programs could result in big savings in reduced prison populations.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin, speaking to the House and Senate judiciary committees, endorsed the study Tuesday. He also promoted an emerging network of courts focused on steering drug offenders away from committing new crimes.

Court administrator Steve Canterbury urged lawmakers to look to the drug courts as an early, successful example of justice reinvestment.

“You put money in the front end, you have intensive supervision, you spend literally a fifth, a seventh of what you would spend if you put them through the standard court process and incarcerated them,” Canterbury told the committee members.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he hadn’t had a chance to read the bill in full, but he supports all the recommendations from the study.

“I think the most difficult one is going to be releasing non-violent offenders six months early with supervision,” Palumbo said.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said that House Republicans had not yet met, but he expected them to have major issues with the bill.

“The provision that allows six months early release gives me a great deal of concern,” Armstead said. “Particularly when we’re talking about people who have already been denied parole.”