Prison Reform Bill Passes

CHARLESTON (AP) – The West Virginia House passed a bill Friday to reform the state’s critically overcrowded prison system, a day after the family of a man killed in a regional jail in January said they will sue the state over his death.

The bill ramps up post-release supervision and drug treatment for prisoners. It passed 81-17 with the support of all 54 House Democrats and more than half of the 46 House Republicans.

Senate leaders said they will accept the House version of the bill and send it to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, despite significant differences between the two versions.

The bill is expected to halt the growth in prison population but not substantially reduce the number of people currently in prisons or regional jails. Prison Commissioner Jim Rubenstein has said repeatedly that prison crowding in West Virginia is already at a crisis state. Every prison bed is filled, and about 1,700 people are being housed in regional jails that were never meant for prisoners with long sentences.

In January, 18-year old Je’ron Hawkins was killed by a federal inmate at North Central Regional Jail in Sutton, W.Va. On Thursday, Hawkins’ family announced that they intend to file a wrongful death lawsuit once the state’s criminal investigation is complete. Hawkins was convicted of murder in 2012 but was still being held in a regional jail, not a state prison, when he died.

“You have this huge overcrowding problem in prisons which has just rolled into regional jails, and there’s just way too many prisoners for them to keep track of,” said Matthew Stout, an attorney for the Hawkins family.

It is still unclear whether the bill will keep the state from having to build a new prison, costing more than $200 million.

The House bill differs from the bill passed by the Senate in two major ways. It would grant non-violent offenders six months early supervised release, but only at a judge’s discretion. That early release would not be granted automatically and not to prisoners already in the system. That change is expected to reduce the bill’s fiscal savings by $9 million next year.

It also mandates that every county participate in drug court programs by 2016. Drug courts use strict drug treatment and testing as an alternative to prison sentences. They currently operate in 30 of the state’s 55 counties and have been enormously successful in keeping offenders from being sent back to jail.

Around 75 percent of inmates in West Virginia are incarcerated for crimes that are somehow drug related. The state Division of Corrections currently does not spend any money on drug treatment for released inmates. The bill would provide $25 million over the next five years for increased supervision, most of it for drug treatment.

Delegate Carol Miller spoke passionately in favor of the bill, saying it would help alleviate the disease of addiction.

“Many of the inmates are people who commit crimes to feed their addictions. They keep recycling in and out of jail and our prison system,” the Cabell County Republican said. “We’re taking a giant leap forward in helping our citizens turn their lives around.”

West Virginia has the highest rate of deaths by drug overdose in the nation.

Republican Minority Leader Tim Armstead wanted the early release provision removed. He said he keeps asking people why they support the bill.

“The answer I get more often than any is, ‘we’ve got to do something,'” Armstead said. “But is the something the right something, is it the right action, is it the right bill?”