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Prison overcrowding bill passes Senate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation intended to curb prison overcrowding by reducing recidivism and expanding community sentencing options (SB371) passed the Senate on Thursday 33-0, with several senators calling it a good first step toward state prison reforms.

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, a former long-time county sheriff, and former assistant Corrections commissioner, encouraged legislators to pass the bill, calling it the product of "an inclusive, collaborative, and consensus-building process."

"In approaching this problem, I've realized there is no single silver-bullet solution," said Laird, who currently serves as co-chairman of a legislative interim committee on Corrections and Regional Jails.

"Our Regional Jails and prison systems are busting at the seams, and at the same time, we continue to incarcerate 900 non-violent offenders each year," said Laird, who said the bill will ease overcrowding, "and will also make us safer in the communities in which we live."

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, also endorsed the bill, and deflected criticism from some House Republicans who have raised concerns the legislation is soft on crime.

"It makes sense to me, even if you let someone out six months early, and you supervise them, recidivism will be less," he said.

Under the Tomblin administration bill, all inmates would be subject to mandatory post-release supervision, ranging from six months for non-violent offenders to one year for violent offenders.

Afterward, Hall said his vote should not be considered a message to House Republicans who have raised concerns about the bill, including House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

"What's fair to say is, I did give consideration to the reported comments of people from the other side of the hall," Hall said. "I'm just stating my 'yes' vote was after giving serious thought to the question of early release."

Fellow Republican Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, also spoke in favor of the bill.

"The question is, do we want to continue to put people in prison, and spend another $200 million to build another prison in West Virginia?" Barnes noted.

He agreed the bill does not directly address the societal issues contributing to prison overcrowding, including truancy, high dropout rates, and substance abuse, but added, "I've looked at the problems with prison overcrowding for years, and stand here to say, yes, this is a step in the right direction."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, pointed out the legislation is based on recommendations by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, which has previously addressed prison-overcrowding issues in 16 other states.

"The work they've done in other states has really helped with similar problems with escalating incarcerations," he said. "This bill is significant in that it will help control our prison population."

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, was absent Thursday. The bill goes to the House of Delegates.

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


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