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Tomblin prison bill advances

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A second key bill on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's legislative agenda, to curb severe overcrowding in state prisons and regional jails (SB371) is headed for final passage Saturday after winning approval in the House of Delegates on Friday with an 81-17 vote.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the Senate will concur with House changes to the bill, sending the legislation to the governor for his signature.

The bill, based on recommendations of a study by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center, focuses on reducing recidivism by providing mandatory post-release supervision for all released inmates, as well as availability of substance-abuse treatment and counseling.

House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said the Justice Center has proven successful in reducing prison overcrowding in other states, including Texas.

"This bill may be innovative for West Virginia, but it's not innovative -- other states have done this," he said.

House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said the bill addresses the root cause of prison overcrowding -- individuals with substance-abuse problems.

"It is a recognition of where the problem really lies," he said, adding, "There are thousands of individuals who are incarcerated, or who will become incarcerated who will have the disease they have treated in an effective way."

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, agreed that the legislation would be a major benefit to people "caught in a spiral of substance abuse and incarceration."

Additionally, he said, the law would save millions of dollars by reducing costs of incarcerating inmates and by avoiding the necessity to build a new penitentiary at a cost of $250 million or more.

"This should appeal to those of us who are progressive, and who are fiscally responsible," he said.

Opponents of the bill suggest it will endanger public safety by providing some inmates with early release dates or that it fails to address issues such as the state's sentencing laws.

"This bill is not right for our court system. It is not right for our citizens. It is not the right solution," said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

Armstead proposed four amendments to the bill Thursday, and delegates soundly rejected all four.

Delegates voting against the bill were: Andes, Armstead, Arvon, Border, Butler, Cooper, Cowles, Ellington, Frich, Householder, Ireland, Kump, O'Neal, Raines, R. Smith, Sobonya and Summers. Delegates Howell and J. Nelson were absent.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said the only issue with the House bill is an amendment to extend drug courts -- community-based day reporting and substance-abuse treatment programs now offered in 30 counties -- statewide. He also said it is not worth risking the bill to change that provision.

"It's about as good as we're going to get from the House," Palumbo said of the bill.

Also Friday, a bill to extend and expand a popular home-rule pilot project for municipalities (SB435) was placed in a House-Senate conference committee after the Senate refused to accept House amendments added to the bill.

The key sticking point is over an amendment by Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, which would force the city of Charleston to repeal a two-decade old ordinance restricting purchases of handguns in order to remain in the home-rule program.

Senate conferees are Sens. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson; Ronald Miller, D-Greenbrier; and Donna Boley, R-Pleasants. House conferees are Delegates Jim Morgan, D-Cabell; Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock; and Tom Azinger, R-Wood.

Conferees will have until 6 p.m. Saturday to reach a compromise on the bill, and submit a conference committee report.

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


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