CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation intended to curb overcrowding in state prisons and regional jails (SB371) is headed for passage in the House of Delegates, after an amended bill advanced through the Judiciary and Finance committees Tuesday.
The amended bill drew bipartisan support, including an endorsement from Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, who noted, "We can't just say, 'we don't like this. We're not comfortable with this,' and let the courts determine what to do with our penal system."
Ellem, a defense attorney, added, "This bill is a good compromise. It is the progress of a lot of good, well thought-out work."
Likewise, Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, said of the governor's bill, "In one bold stroke, we address both substance-abuse treatment and high recidivism rates that drive up costs."
With state prisons at capacity and regional jails critically overcrowded with the backlog of Corrections inmates, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last spring requested the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments to look at ways to alleviate issues contributing to overcrowding.
The governor's bill reached the House floor Tuesday evening, following more than four hours of discussion and amendments in the Judiciary and Finance committees.
In a key change, Judiciary Committee members removed a provision in the original bill that would automatically provide six months early release with mandatory supervision for all non-violent offenders. Instead, the revised bill makes early release a sentencing option for judges for persons convicted after July 1.
That amendment placates House Republicans who had concerns with mandatory early release, but also will slow the process of reducing overcrowding, Carl Reynolds, senior policy advisor for the Justice Center, told the committee.
Reynolds, who headed a group that studied the state's overcrowding problem for nearly a year, said the amendment will reduce projected Division of Corrections savings from $27 million to $18 million a year by reducing the inmate population more slowly, but said the legislation should still be effective in curbing the overcrowding issue.
"This provides the hope for certainly stopping the growth in the system," he said.
Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury said the key to the legislation is in reducing recidivism by no longer permitting inmates to go from "cell to street" with no post-release supervision.
"For a lot of these guys, the main crime is that they don't have a lick of sense, and no discipline," he said of the folly of releasing inmates back to their old neighborhoods with no supervision or substance abuse treatment.