CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A House committee has made only minor changes to a prison reform bill despite concerns the measure gives too much authority to the Division of Corrections.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill Monday, but committee members questioned whether the division should draft legislative rules before reducing sanctions for parole violators or expanding the number of parolees. Delegates also questioned why the bill did not provide parole-required services to state inmates housed in regional jails as a way to increase the number of parole-eligible inmates. They noted that the bill would not end overcrowded conditions.
As many as 1,700 state prisoners are held in regional jails because of a lack of beds at the state's 13 prisons. Drug abuse and drug-related crimes are driving much of the overcrowding and a key component of the bill would add 200 beds to a prison-based drug treatment program. Offenders who complete the program would be eligible for their sentences to be reduced by a judge, potentially allowing them to leave prison sooner.
Other components of the legislation would grant incremental sanctions for parole and probation violators instead of returning them to prison. Bail for misdemeanor charges would be capped at no more than the cost of fines and court fees.
Committee members rejected an amendment to require the Division of Corrections to draft legislative rules, which carry the force of law, instead of drafting policies related to the parole changes and the drug treatment programs. Members said the rule-making process would slow down efforts to reduce the number of inmates.
Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, said the bill gives too much authority to the division to reduce sanctions for parole violators or expand the number of parolees, placing public safety at risk.
"We have to be accountable to the people. When we talk about offenders getting out of jail early or different sentences, I want to be the one who makes that decision," Sobonya said.
She also questioned why psychological examinations and education programming is not offered to state prisoners while they are housed in regional jails. Providing those services would mean the parole board could grant parole to more offenders, freeing up more beds and saving the state millions, Sobonya said.