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Tomblin's prison overcrowding bill similar to last year's effort

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Between briefings from representatives of the Council of State Government's Justice Center and the Senate's work on similar legislation last year, Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he believes the Judiciary Committee is up to speed on the governor's bill to help alleviate state prison overcrowding (SB371, HB 2726).

"My general view of it is that it's not that different, in a lot of ways, from what we passed last year in the Senate," Palumbo said after the bill's introduction Tuesday.

Much like the recommendations of the Justice Center, last year's Senate bill emphasized substance abuse treatment for parolees and other programs for inmates, along with mandatory supervised parole for all released inmates.

That bill passed the Senate 34-0 but died in the House at the end of the 2012 session, over concerns about costs for community corrections and mandatory post-release supervision for all inmates, as well as over philosophical differences among House Republicans on provisions for early release of inmates.

The governor's bill closely follows recommendations of the Justice Center, which conducted a year-long study of state prison overcrowding, including:

 

  • Pre-sentencing and pre-parole needs and risk assessment for all inmates, along with 180 days' mandatory supervised release for all nonviolent offenders, and one year of supervised release for all violent offenders.
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  • Providing accelerated parole for nonviolent offenders, including six months' early release for those inmates. 
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  • Requiring parolees to comply with additional requirements, including substance abuse treatment, reporting to day-reporting centers or other community corrections, or other conditions of parole.
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  • Providing alternative sanctions for technical parole violations other than revoking parole, including "shock" sentences of up to 60 days in jail for first violations.
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    Palumbo said the Justice Center has had success in reducing prison overcrowding in 15 other states. The recommendations worked so well in Texas, for instance, that the state recently was able to close down a prison.

    "They have a very successful and proven track record," Palumbo said.

    Critics, however, argued Tuesday that the Justice Center's recommendations and the governor's bill don't go far enough to address issues contributing to severe overcrowding in the state's prisons and Regional Jails.

    Dave McMahon of Mountain State Justice noted that the Justice Center's own report suggests that implementing the recommended changes will not reduce the number of inmates, but will stabilize the state prison population at about 7,400 inmates.

    "The governor's bill does not relieve jail overcrowding. He didn't go after the biggest problems that could solve it," McMahon said.

    McMahon said the bill does not go far enough to promote early parole, or to use community corrections as a sentencing alternative. He said the bill also fails to address excessively long, draconian sentences in the state's criminal law.

    "Our minimum sentence for armed robbery is Ohio's maximum sentence," he said.

    Palumbo agreed that sentencing should be part of the Legislature's review, noting, "I think we need to look at the whole picture."

    Alyson Clements, with ACLU of West Virginia, said the bill also does not address ways to help former inmates become productive members of society.

    "They're calling it justice reinvestment, but how does it reinvest in society?" she asked.

    Senate Judiciary will be the first committee to take up the legislation, and Palumbo said it's likely to be on the committee agenda next week.

    "I don't anticipate we'll have it on the agenda before next week, but I would anticipate we'll do it fairly quickly," he said. "I think most people on committee should be fairly familiar with what's in the bill, because of the good explanation we got from the Justice Center last week."

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


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