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Prison overcrowding bill close to Senate vote

Mar. 20, 2013 @ 11:09 PM

CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia Senate is poised to give final approval Thursday to legislation directed at improving the state's approach to coping with individuals caught up in the widespread problem of substance abuse by providing an alternative to long prison terms.

The vote will come after members listened to an emotional floor speech by Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, during Wednesday's floor session which he indicated was prompted by an editorial in the Beckley newspaper Wednesday.

"We buried a family member on Monday that got hooked on prescription drugs 10 years ago," he told a solemn Senate membership. "It was 3 a.m. on last Friday that he was hit by a coal truck in Wyoming County."

Green said he had received "hundreds of emails" about this bill and that he has no opposition to the legislation.

The bill proposes that offenders be evaluated for possible addiction treatment and supervision rather than being placed in prison or jail.

Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, said after Wednesday's floor session he doesn't know what may happen to the bill in the House of Delegates but expects a solid roll call vote in favor of the bill in the Senate on Thursday.

"This is a good first step," Kessler told reporters. "It has been very successful in other states. But it's going to cost money. We're going to need $20 million to $30 million to successfully implement a program that will address this growing problem."

Members of a House of Delegates committee heard from Michael B. Lacy, director of the division of probation services for the state Supreme Court on Monday. He told them treating adults with substance abuse problems costs $7,100 a year compared with $18,400 if the individual is in a regional jail and $24,000 if that person is sent to a state prison facility.

SB371, if it becomes law, adds several duties for the state Supreme Court of Appeals and in a fiscal note, the court indicated it can perform these duties at no additional cost.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said afterwards that he doesn't know what the House of Delegates will do with the legislation once it passes the Senate on Thursday. But he indicated he hopes some consensus can be reached to approve the legislation in both houses before the adjournment of the 2013 regular legislative session at midnight Saturday, April 13.

Green's said his concerns are concentrated on the children of families where drug abuse is common among the adults.

"Our Committee on Children and Poverty is going to conduct a public meeting in Wyoming County, " he said. "And half the people there will be people receiving public assistance -- many of them involved in some kind of addiction. Who is going to protect the children?"

But Kessler said the current substance abuse problem in West Virginia is an "equal opportunity destroyer that reaches all people from the country clubs to the welfare recipients."

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