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Inmate crowding, sexting among new W.Va. laws

Jul. 05, 2013 @ 12:06 AM

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia is repealing, updating or expanding dozens of state laws this month, and the wide array of topics include prison conditions, tanning salons and Supreme Court elections.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed 217 bills passed by the Legislature this year. More than half of them take effect this month, with most becoming law July 12. Around 25 took effect Monday, the start of the state's new budget year.

Perhaps the highest-profile measure targets West Virginia's inmate crowding crisis. Starting July 12, circuit judges can begin including six-month early supervised release terms when they sentence non-violent offenders. The courts will also begin using a research-supported method to assess an offender's needs and risks. That legislation also sets a timetable to expanding the drug court system, deemed successful in deterring repeat offenses, to all 55 counties.

Jason Pizatella, Tomblin's deputy chief of staff, cited how such state entities as the Division of Corrections, regional jail authority and Supreme Court have worked together to make this new law work. The state has led the nation in the growth of its prison population, and more than 1,700 convicted felons are serving sentences in regional jails because the state's prisons lack the needed bed space.

"This is really going to require a team effort," said Pizatella, who was the governor's legislative director until his promotion Wednesday.

The legislation reflected findings from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. The U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States funded the in-depth study of West Virginia's criminal justice system. Pizatella said project team members will remain in the state for another year to help carry out the new law's provisions.

Another measure that took effect this month should help ease prison crowding. On Monday, the Industrial Home for Youth, which had been a facility for juvenile offenders, became the Salem Correctional Center for adults. The switch should help resolve a legal challenge that targeted conditions for juveniles at the Harrison County campus. Its residents are moving to other facilities. It will also add 400 beds to the adult prison system, with inmates expected to arrive later this summer, Pizatella said.

Also starting July 12, children under 18 will need a parent's written consent before hitting a tanning salon. A separate measure bans sexting by youths while offering an alternative to juvenile criminal charges.

Public funding for qualifying Supreme Court candidates becomes permanent July 12. The program operated under a pilot basis in 2012, with now-Justice Allen Loughry its sole participant, offering an alternative to traditional fundraising.

Another program expanded this month allows the Division of Highways commissioner to reach public-private road project deals without legislative approval. These deals would allow the private-sector partner to assess temporary tolls, for instance, or mine the coal beneath a planned roadway to help the state complete a project.

"Using traditional funding methods, it would take 20 to 30 years to complete some of these projects," Pizatella said.

Legislation that took effect July 1 continues a pilot program that's granted more powers to cities, in a state where government is heavily centralized. As amended before passage, it limits gun control ordinances and tax changes while making such other topics as annexation, pensions and marriage off-limits.

All 55 county sheriffs must ensure starting July 1 that their deputies have bullet-resistant vests. With the needed funding pledged by the West Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association and the statewide group representing sheriffs, an estimated 50 vests were needed to meet that mandate.

The law was prompted by an August shooting that left Roane County Deputy John Westfall wounded, after the suspect had murdered State Police Cpl. Marshall Lee Bailey and Trooper Eric Michael Workman. Another July 1 change expands a scholarship program for the children of slain state troopers to benefit those of all law enforcement killed in the line of duty. That measure also increases the scholarship from currently $7,500 to go toward tuition at state colleges or vocational schools to that amount for each year of college.

Repealed provisions include one that allowed for the sterilization of people deemed mentally incompetent.

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