CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation intended to relieve state prison and regional jail overcrowding by helping inmates break drug and alcohol addictions, and to be able to reenter society more quickly and successfully, advanced Monday to the full Senate from the Senate Judiciary Committee (SB342).
Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, said the Senate bill was a refinement of the recommendations of a House-Senate interim committee on overcrowding -- a committee whose proposals went so far as to demand that the Division of Corrections build a new 200-bed state prison.
Instead, the Senate bill emphasizes substance abuse treatment for new inmates on the front-end, and provides for better transition out of prisons on the back-end.
"It recognizes we have a drug addiction problem that is the driving cause why West Virginia has an overcrowding problem," Jenkins said of the bill.
On the front-end, it would require Corrections to expand its substance abuse treatment programs for all non-violent offenders, except for those whose crimes involved children.
Upon successful completion of the treatment program, which generally runs eight months to one year, the sentencing court would have the discretion to place the individual on probation.
On the back end, inmates within six months of completing their full sentences would be placed on supervised parole. Currently, inmates who complete their sentences are discharged into society without any supervision.
Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said that in the 2010-11 budget year, a total of 788 inmates were discharged after completing their sentences.
Rubenstein said the legislation could be beneficial, not only by opening up prison beds six months early, but by helping inmates transition to the outside world -- particularly those who have served long sentences.
Currently, he said many inmates with a year remaining on their prison terms will opt not to have parole hearings, preferring to serve the additional time to avoid having supervision from parole officers once released.
He said gearing up substance abuse treatment programs, with the inmates' incentive of the possibility of early release, also should help address overcrowding.
"As I've said before, I feel 80 to 85 percent of our inmate population is there, directly or indirectly, because of drug and alcohol abuse," Rubenstein said.