W.Va. Senate Unanimously Backs Tomblin’s Prison Reform Bill

WHEELING – The state Senate on Thursday unanimously passed legislation aimed at curbing prison overcrowding.

Under the measure, prisoners released early would be subject to post-release supervision. Risk assessments would be conducted following their release, and they would be directed to undergo substance abuse treatment if necessary.

The bill, introduced by Senate President Jeff Kessler at the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, now moves on to the House.

“There are some suggestions Republicans in the House aren’t happy with some provisions,” said Kessler, D-Marshall. “They say it is soft on crime, and they could use that for their political advantage. I hope they don’t do that.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, and Minority Whip Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, spoke out in favor of the measure, Kessler said. He said similar legislation has proven successful in other states that have tried it.

Kessler said the bill’s provisions send a “fair and appropriate message,” noting they have been tried successfully in conservative states such as Texas.

Prisoners who serve their full sentence often are released into society without any further supervision or integration into society. Under this measure, those released early would receive supervision through the end of their sentence. Kessler said this has proven to decrease recidivism by as much as 80 percent.

Sen. Robert “Rocky” Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the bill is a step in the right direction.

“What I particularly liked was the provision for supervised release,” he said. “We would also begin offering substance abuse treatment during incarceration – and that’s an increasing problem in West Virginia. If we take steps to treat it – and just don’t release them back on streets without treatment – this leads to a lower number of repeat offenders.”

West Virginia’s prison population has grown at three times the national average over the last decade. According to projections, this bill would halt that growth and save $116 million over five years, but it would not substantially reduce the number of prisoners already incarcerated.

The bill would ensure that all prisoners are supervised immediately following their release. Violent offenders would receive no reduction in jail time, but they would have a year of court-ordered supervision following release. Non-violent offenders would be released from jail six months early and placed into supervised programs for those six months.

The bill would provide $25 million over five years for increased supervision and drug and alcohol treatment.

The measure would no longer revoke probation or parole for minor or technical violations. Instead, there would be a series of graduated punishments, with parole or probation being revoked only following the third minor violation. Parole or probation would still be immediately revoked if a person absconds from supervision or commits a new crime.