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Tomblin introduces prison proposal

Feb. 26, 2013 @ 11:01 PM

CHARLESTON -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin unveiled a proposal Tuesday to resolve the long-standing problem of prison overcrowding.

The 78-page bill aims to reduce the prison population, which has been described by corrections officials as in a crisis stage, by letting some inmates out early with supervision, shortening sentences for those who violate their probation or parole on technical grounds and permitting judges to sentence certain drug offenders to substance abuse treatment in lieu of jail time.

The bill relies heavily on recommendations contained in a report the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments released in January. The report attributed the overcrowding problem to a few key factors, including a lack of supervision of offenders upon their release from prison and not enough community-based substance abuse treatment programs. Both of those factors increase the likelihood that an offender will end up back in prison, the report said.

Tomblin's bill mandates all nonviolent offenders be let out of prison six months early into supervised release programs. Violent offenders who have not been paroled, meanwhile, would receive one year of supervision upon their completed sentence. The provision would apply to offenders who commit violent crimes after June 30 of this year.

The early-release provisions in the bill caused heartburn for some GOP lawmakers in the House of Delegates. House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he supports increasing supervision.

"We need to strike a balance between addressing prison overcrowding problems while at the same time ensuring public safety," he said. "Any time we talk about a bill that says everyone is eligible for an early release gives me a lot of concern."

Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, however, said research in the Justice Center's report suggests nonviolent offenders are not likely to commit another crime if they are placed under community-based supervision rather than serving the last few months of a prison sentence.

"I hope it's not a knee-jerk reaction (from Republicans) that we don't want to be perceived as being weak on crime," Kessler, D-Marshall, said. "It's not. It's being smart on crime. If we can cut in half the re-offending rate and folks never go back to prison again, we're a long way toward solving our overcrowding problem."

The bill also allows judges to impose shortened sentences for those who violate terms of their probation or parole because of technical violations such as missing curfew or leaving the state. Those who commit a new crime would not be eligible. The Justice Center report found that almost 20 percent of 3,324 new prison commitments in 2011 were inmates who violated parole or probation for technical violations.

The bill would allow judges and the Parole Board to sentence technical violators to 60 days of confinement for the first offense and 120 days for the second offense. Longer sentences would be imposed upon the third violation. Armstead argued the shortened sentences are too lenient.

"This bill basically says you have three more opportunities before you go back in and serve the remainder of your sentence," he said.

The bill also sets standards for the risk and needs assessment evaluations that prisoners would undergo to determine whether they are appropriate candidates for alternative sentencing measures. The same evaluations would determine whether drug offenders who have a high risk of re-offending and a need for substance abuse treatment are eligible for treatment programs.

The state Division of Justice and Community Services would develop qualifications for drug treatment providers, a provision in the bill that worries Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell.

"I'm concerned that we will have a lot of different treatment groups looking at this as a financial opportunity and saying they will provide the kind of treatment we are looking for without being completely honest," he said. "Our challenge as legislators will be making sure we have truly competent programs because we will be financially supporting them."

Tomblin's bill was introduced in the House and Senate, but legislative leaders have agreed to let the Senate work on the bill first. The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees. Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said the committee will begin studying the bill and will take it up for consideration next week.

Kessler said he hopes the financial impact of the bill, which was not disclosed Tuesday, will be vetted before it is forwarded to the Finance Committee. Most legislators know solving the state's overcrowding problem will cost money, but tackling it with measures such as increased supervision will cost much less than building a new prison, he said.

"At the end of the day, it's pay now or pay more later," Kessler said.

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.

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