CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The West Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday that aims to improve public safety and ease overcrowding in the state’s filled-to-capacity prisons and jails.
The prison reform bill is the second major piece of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s agenda to pass the Senate.
Unlike his education bill, which passed only after significant changes, the prison bill passed without major amendments. It’s the result of a months-long study of the state’s prison and criminal justice system.
West Virginia’s prison population has grown at three times the national average over the last decade. According to projections, this bill would halt that growth and save $116 million over five years, but would not substantially reduce the number of prisoners already incarcerated.
The bill would ensure that all prisoners are under supervision immediately following their release. Violent offenders would receive no reduction in jail time, but would have a year of court-ordered supervision following release. Non-violent offenders would be released from jail six months early and placed into supervised programs for those six months.
Upon release, inmates would be screened and, if necessary, placed into drug treatment programs. The bill provides $25 million over five years for increased supervision and drug and alcohol treatment.
The bill would no longer revoke probation or parole for minor or technical violations. Instead, there would be a series of graduated punishments, with parole or probation being revoked only following the third minor violation. Parole or probation would still be immediately revoked if a person absconds from supervision or commits a new crime.
The unanimous vote bodes well for the bill’s chances in the House of Delegates, as some Republican senators had previously expressed concern that the bill was soft on crime.
Republican Minority Leader Mike Hall said he felt the need to explain his “yes” vote. Hall said that he was comforted by the fact that Texas, a very Republican state, had successfully enacted many of the provisions in the bill. Hall also said that the support of prosecutors in his home county helped sway him on the bill.
“Supervision for six months seems better than keeping them for six months and then throwing them out on the street,” Hall said of the early release provision.
Hall said that adding a year of supervised release for violent offenders was, in fact, tougher on crime.
The state’s prison commissioner has repeatedly said that overcrowding is at a crisis level. There are currently about 7,200 prisoners in the state prison system, but only about 5,400 prison beds. The overflow prisoners are being housed in regional jails that were never meant to house prisoners for long stays.
Many of those prisoners are eligible for parole, but, in a catch-22, they cannot be paroled because the regional jails don’t provide the behavioral programs that need to be completed before parole. Del. Stephen Skinner called the situation Kafkaesque.
The bill aims to resolve that problem by offering the programs to inmates in regional jails through video teleconferences and online seminars.
Sen. Clark Barnes, a Republican, said that the crowding in regional jails has become a safety issue.
“The people that work in our regional jails right now are in danger, because the people that should be in prison, we’re holding in our regional jails,” Barnes said. “We have the kind of problems in the regional jails that you’re supposed to have in prisons except we’re not equipped to take care of them.”
Democratic Sen. William Laird, a former sheriff and assistant corrections commissioner, tried to address any potential objections and urged the passage of the bill.
“The temptation may exist to posture politically by pounding on your chest and proclaiming, ‘I’m tough on crime,’” Laird said. “I feel no need to do so.”
The bill will now be sent to the House of Delegates where Republicans are much closer to holding a majority than they are in the Senate.
When the prison bill was first introduced in late February, Republican House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said he had major problems with it.
“The provision that allows six months early release gives me a great deal of concern,” Armstead said at the time. “Particularly when we’re talking about people who have already been denied parole.”