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Republicans fail to amend W.Va. prison reform bill

Apr. 11, 2013 @ 11:46 PM

CHARLESTON -- House Republicans failed to change Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's prison reform bill Thursday despite offering four separate amendments.

All four amendments proposed by Minority Leader Tim Armstead were defeated by comfortable margins. None of the amendments even got the votes of all of the House's 46 Republicans.

The final bill that the House will vote on Friday is expected to save less money than Tomblin's original bill. That bill, largely unchanged, passed the Senate unanimously in March.

Tomblin's original bill would have released non-violent offenders six months early into supervised programs. That provision was changed to make the early release at a judge's discretion. The provision would no longer apply to prisoners already in the system.

Carl Reynolds, who conducted the nine month study that led to Tomblin's bill, said that those changes would reduce the state's savings next year from $27 million to $18 million. Reynolds said that estimate was based on the assumption that most judges would not grant six months early release, although he said he hoped that was a wrong assumption.

Prison crowding has reached a crisis level, with every prison bed filled and about 1,700 prisoners housed in regional jails never meant to hold offenders for long stays. Neither version of the bill would substantially decrease the current population. While both focus on halting growth in the prison population, neither guarantees the state will not need to spend around $200 million on a new prison.

Armstead's most contentious amendment would have completely removed the early release provision. Instead, it would have released non-violent offenders at the regularly scheduled date, but given them six months of supervision following release. All versions of the bill have included one year of mandatory supervision for violent offenders following their regularly scheduled release.

Armstead, R-Kanawha, said that the early release provision was only about saving money, not public safety.

"I've yet to hear anyone say how releasing the person early reduces recidivism," Armstead said. "What reduces recidivism is the supervision."

Armstead also had problems with how the bill defines violent and non-violent offenders. He cited examples, saying that DUIs resulting in fatalities could be treated as non-violent offenses as could deaths resulting from violations of mine safety standards.

The bill defines violent offenders as anyone who commits a felony crime of violence, a felony against a child or a felony using a firearm.

As written, the bill advises judges to use graduated sentencing for minor parole and probation violations, rather than immediately revoking parole or probation. Armstead proposed a seemingly technical amendment -- removing the word "special" in three places -- that would make it much easier for judges to ignore the graduated sentences and instead completely revoke probation or parole.

House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, spoke against three of Armstead's four amendments. He said that the prisons are overcrowded in part because people make technical parole and probation violations and then are sent back to prison for the remainder of their term.

Del. Justin Marcum, a prosecutor, said that the legislature was overstepping its bounds by removing a judge's discretion.

"If you're two minutes late for your parole officer it's a technical violation," the Mingo County Democrat said. "If you get stuck behind a train in the southern coalfields you've violated your parole."

The House version of the bill mandates that every county participate in drug court programs.

Drug courts currently operate in 30 of the state's 55 counties and have successfully helped prevent drug offenders from ending up in jail again. The recidivism rate for the state's drug courts is 9 percent, compared with about 80 percent for people convicted of similar crimes in regular courts. Steve Canterbury, an administrator with the state Supreme Court, cautioned that that figure could be misleadingly low because drug courts are so new in the state. However, drug courts across the nation have recidivism rates around 20 percent, well below regular courts, he said.

Tomblin told the Associated Press that he thought drug courts were a useful program but that mandating them in every county was not the best approach. He said he would like legislators to reconsider drug courts when the House and Senate work to sync their versions of the bill.

"I think there's probably a better way to establish drug courts, because they have proven helpful in the past six or eight years," the Democratic governor said. "I would like them to look at it."

Tomblin spokesman Jason Pizzatella said that Tomblin was happy that a House committee had pushed back to 2016 the date by which drug courts must be in effect. He said that Tomblin supports the final bill.

Associated Press Staff Writer Lawrence Messina in Charleston contributed to this report.

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