CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House and Senate Judiciary Committee members got a first look Thursday at draft prison reform legislation designed to alleviate severe overcrowding in state prisons and Regional Jails through a combination of community-based corrections, substance abuse treatment programs, and mandatory post-release supervision.
If properly implemented, the proposals should stabilize the state's prison population at about 7,400 inmates by 2018, producing savings of $116 million on operating costs and eliminating the need to build a new prison, at a cost of $300 million or more, representatives with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments advised.
"It's up to you all as a group to commit to do this, and do it right," Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy advisor for the Justice Center, told the joint assembly.
Key aspects of the proposed legislation:
• Invest in community-based substance abuse treatment programs for parolees. Reynolds said the state prison system has very good treatment programs, but noted, "The problem is, you don't have any substance abuse treatment programs for persons on probation or parole."
• Improve accountability by requiring at least six months of post-release supervision for all inmates, and implement alternative sanctions for those who commit technical violations while on probation or parole.
The Justice Center study found that 38 percent of prison commitments are for probation or parole revocations, most often for technical violations such as breaking curfew or failing drug or alcohol tests. Those committed on revocations serve an average of an additional two years in prison.
Graduated sanctions of 30 to 60 days in jail are more effective at dealing with such technical violations, and is much less costly than revocations, Reynolds said.
• Strengthening community supervision, by expanding day reporting centers, and improving risk and needs assessments for inmates.
Former Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele said his state is in the process of implementing similar recommendations of the Justice Center to address prison overcrowding there.
"We felt like if we just incarcerated more people, that must result in better public safety," he said.
The philosophy of locking everyone up did not reduce violent crime rates in Oklahoma. In fact, violent crime went up in the state's bigger cities, he said.
Steele said putting first-time nonviolent offenders in prison with hardened criminals had an unintended consequence: "We sort of taught them how to be a criminal."
While Oklahoma just passed its reform legislation in November, Steele said neighboring Texas enacted justice reinvestment reforms in 2007.
Since then, they've realized $2 billion in Corrections system costs and reduced the state's prison population to the point where they were recently able to close a state prison.
Additionally, Steele said, "Today, their violent crime rate is the lowest it's been in 30 years."
Earlier Thursday, state Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told the Senate Finance Committee he endorses the recommendations of the Justice Center, noting that they have been successful in other states in reducing overcrowding.
"I don't say it lightly or as a scare tactic, but we are at a crisis situation with prison overcrowding," he said.
"We need to have adequate beds for judges to be able to place individuals in treatment [programs] on the front-end, as opposed to Corrections," Rubenstein said.
Reach Phil Kabler at ph...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.