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W.Va. prison bill advances with minor changes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A House committee has made only minor changes to a prison reform bill despite concerns the measure gives too much authority to the Division of Corrections.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill Monday, but committee members questioned whether the division should draft legislative rules before reducing sanctions for parole violators or expanding the number of parolees. Delegates also questioned why the bill did not provide parole-required services to state inmates housed in regional jails as a way to increase the number of parole-eligible inmates. They noted that the bill would not end overcrowded conditions.

As many as 1,700 state prisoners are held in regional jails because of a lack of beds at the state's 13 prisons. Drug abuse and drug-related crimes are driving much of the overcrowding and a key component of the bill would add 200 beds to a prison-based drug treatment program. Offenders who complete the program would be eligible for their sentences to be reduced by a judge, potentially allowing them to leave prison sooner.

Other components of the legislation would grant incremental sanctions for parole and probation violators instead of returning them to prison. Bail for misdemeanor charges would be capped at no more than the cost of fines and court fees.

Committee members rejected an amendment to require the Division of Corrections to draft legislative rules, which carry the force of law, instead of drafting policies related to the parole changes and the drug treatment programs. Members said the rule-making process would slow down efforts to reduce the number of inmates.

Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, said the bill gives too much authority to the division to reduce sanctions for parole violators or expand the number of parolees, placing public safety at risk.

"We have to be accountable to the people. When we talk about offenders getting out of jail early or different sentences, I want to be the one who makes that decision," Sobonya said.

She also questioned why psychological examinations and education programming is not offered to state prisoners while they are housed in regional jails. Providing those services would mean the parole board could grant parole to more offenders, freeing up more beds and saving the state millions, Sobonya said.

Similar concerns were raised when the bill worked its way through the Senate.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said the jails do not have the space or staff to offer the programming and were never intended to provide such services.

A House bill that would have mandated those services would cost an estimated $29 million to build permanent classroom space at the state-run jails and to staff and equipment the programs, Rubenstein said.

That bill passed the House Judiciary Committee but it stalled before the Finance Committee.

Delegate David Walker, D-Clay, said he would vote for the reform bill but he wants to see legislation next year that would provide alternatives to incarceration and would focus on drug rehabilitation before sending offenders to prison.

"Our state funding would be more well spent instead of filling the jailhouses up [if we] rehabilitate them before," Walker said. "We're not punishing the criminals, we're just filling our jailhouses up. We're creating more criminals. I think it's a failed system."

Social justice agencies that advocate for low-income West Virginians have urged the state to reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes and to improve the use of alternative sentencing through community corrections programs and drug treatment.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has invited the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments to review the state's criminal justice system. He hopes the center can suggest changes that would help reverse the state's ballooning prison population, which is expected to grow more than 4 percent each year this decade.


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