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Retired circuit judge, now senator, sees value in prison overcrowding bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Retired circuit judge and freshman Sen. Donald Cookman, D-Hampshire, said that when he first became a judge, he ordered parole revocations for all parole violations -- sending offenders back to prison to complete their terms.

"After 20 years of seeing that didn't work, I think this is a better way," he said of provisions in the governor's bill to reduce prison overcrowding (SB371) to instead allow judges to impose brief jail sentences for technical violations of probation or parole.

However, while the governor's bill accelerates probation and parole, and mandates post-release supervision, substance abuse treatment, and counseling in order to cut down on recidivism, Cookman said the bill is lacking in one aspect.

"The justice reinvestment bill is pretty much silent on the reinvestment portion of it," he noted.

"Would you agree with me that the whole purpose of this bill would be for naught, if the second leg of this legislation does not come to pass, which is justice reinvestment?" Cookman asked Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy advisor for the Justice Center, the group that has studied prison-overcrowding issues in the state since May 2012.

Reynolds agreed, noting that the findings of the Justice Center report call for reinvesting about 20 percent of the projected $116 million of five-year savings into substance abuse treatment programs to reach individuals both before and after they enter the correctional system.

"Our suggestions for reinvestment are just that," Reynolds said. "If you want to go beyond that, it would be great."

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee spent about 90 minutes Tuesday reviewing the governor's bill and raising questions.

Committee Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said plans are to have the committee act on the bill during Wednesday's meeting.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, also questioned a provision in the bill to place a committee to gather and share information about community supervision of parolees under the state Supreme Court.

Unger said that raises separation of powers issues, since the court would oversee executive branch, county, and legislative officials serving on the committee.

"I don't think my objection is to the goals. I think that's right on," he said, questioning whether the committee structure could be revised.

Reynolds said it is important to have one clearinghouse to coordinate and share information, noting that five different agencies at the state level alone deal with Corrections.

"The criminal justice system requires the three branches of government working together, one way or another," he said.

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


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