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Fiscal, philosophical concerns led to prison bill's demise

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislators' concerns, both fiscal and philosophical, led to the demise of legislation Saturday intended to alleviate overcrowding in state prisons and regional jails, Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said Monday.

"Some of the costs were a concern, and there were some philosophical differences," he said of the failure to pass the Corrections reform legislation (SB342).

He said legislators raised concerns over two key provisions of the bill: Establishing a 200-bed secured alternate sentencing facility that would offer substance abuse treatment and recovery programs, and providing six months' mandatory supervision for inmates who have served their full sentences and are otherwise not subject to parole.

The bill was taken off the House of Delegates agenda Friday, and despite negotiations during the day Saturday, was not put back on the active calendar before the session adjourned at midnight.

Despite the setback, Rubenstein said he remains hopeful the Legislature will address prison overcrowding in the near future, and is encouraged that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has brought in a task force from the Council of State Governments to look at the problem and come up with recommendations.

"My understanding is it will be a very expansive, very comprehensive study," Rubenstein said. "Based on their experience in other states, the roadmap they put out for the state should be a good one." 

He said he remains hopeful the Legislature's work on prison overcrowding issues during the session and during legislative interim meetings ultimately will pay off.

"I hope there's a positive twist to this ... as we look at the situation we have here in West Virginia, and take steps to take care of prison overcrowding," Rubenstein said.

Corrections reform was one of several bills that failed to pass during the 60-day legislative session.

Other bills that died at the end of the 2012 regular session would have:

* Eliminated a two-tier salary system for magistrates and their staffers in less populated counties (HB4392). Critics -- including some magistrates from larger counties -- said that would have amounted to a $5,975 pay raise for magistrates currently in the lower tier.

Without passage of the bill, magistrates in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties will see their salaries drop to the lower tier, at $51,525, because of population losses in those counties.

* Taxed cigarettes produced at roll-your-own outlets at the same rate as the state cigarette tax, 55 cents for each 20 cigarettes (SB514). Tax Department estimates are that the roll-your-own outfits are costing the state between $500,000 and $750,000 a year in lost cigarette tax collections.

While both health care advocates and tobacco industry lobbyists supported the bill, the Legislature opted to defer while cases challenging the legality of the roll-your-own outfits are pending both in the state Supreme Court and in federal court.

* Made failure to wear a seatbelt a primary traffic offense (SB139). Sen. Corey Palumbo's perennial try to move the state's mandatory seatbelt law from secondary to primary enforcement made it a step further than usual in the House this year, advancing from the Roads and Transportation Committee. It died in Judiciary Committee.

* Prevented juveniles under age 18 from using commercial tanning beds (SB73), and juveniles under age 16 from getting tattoos (SB54).

* Prohibited convicted felons from running for, or holding public office (SB518).

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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