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Palumbo: Prison overcrowding bill also will enhance safety

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One issue overlooked in the governor's bill to reduce prison overcrowding (SB371) is its potential to enhance safety, Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said Wednesday.

"I think it also will really improve public safety," he said of provisions to require mandatory post-release supervision of all inmates. "It's not just, 'Let's try to reduce our prison population.'"

After a second day of about 90 minutes of discussion and review of the bill, the Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to advance the legislation.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told senators it is critical that the Legislature act on the governor's bill, which is based on recommendations from a lengthy study of prison overcrowding issues by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center research team.

"We're at a crisis stage," Rubenstein said. "My concern every day when I get up is for the staff who work in these correctional facilities. You can only pour so much in the pot before it boils over."

Rubenstein said he is afraid there will be an incident at one of the state prisons that will lead the courts to intervene, if the Legislature fails to act.

"Sometimes the courts, to reduce overcrowding, basically order the reduction of a certain percentage of the [prison] population," he said, noting that in states where such court-ordered releases took place, hundreds of inmates were simply put out on the streets with no probation or supervision.

Rubenstein said the governor's bill would ensure that inmates are released "in a manner to protect the safety of our state and our citizens."

Jason Pizatella, legislative director for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, concurred.

"The last thing we want to do is have an incident in a correctional facility . . . where the courts would come in and order the state to do something," he told the committee.

Pizatella assured senators that the governor is committed to funding the startup costs for the program. That includes about $3 million this year for post-release substance abuse treatment programs, and $500,000 for various training programs.

The governor is also committed to additional $5.5 million annual appropriations through 2018, Pizatella said. He called that a tremendous investment, citing Justice Center projections of $116 million of initial savings on prison costs through accelerated probation and reduced recidivism.

"We think this is a tremendous opportunity for the Legislature and for the state to solve this problem once and for all," he said.

The bill advanced Wednesday with only minor changes.

One amendment clarifies that when program participants are sent to regional jails for brief "shock treatment" sentences for technical violations of probation, parole or drug court policies, the state -- and not the host county -- will pay the incarceration costs.

The bill, one of Tomblin's key proposals for the 2013 session, now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.

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


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