Tom Miller: Prison overcrowding now top issue for W.Va. Legislature
The governor's proposal to overhaul West Virginia's public education program in elementary and secondary schools -- his top priority at the 2013 legislative session -- will soon be on its way to his desk for his signature. So the emphasis now shifts to the second most important issue this year -- overcrowded prisons that can be traced directly to West Virginia's growing substance abuse problems.
Increased impetus for legislative action surfaced during a committee hearing in the House of Delegates early last week when Michael B. Lacy, director of the division of probation services for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, told members of the House Health and Human Resources Committee it is far more cost-effective to provide a treatment program for adults suffering from substance abuse than to throw them in jail.
He said it costs $7,100 a year to provide treatment compared with a cost of $18,400 if that individual is instead sent to a regional jail and $24,000 if the individual is confined in a state prison facility.
Still, the treatment programs outlined in SB371, which passed the Senate last Thursday, won't be cheap. Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said last week it will cost the state $20 million to $30 million to pay for the kind of program needed to successfully combat this growing problem.
There were a couple of amendments approved by the Senate last Wednesday. One would allow magistrates to sentence individuals of misdemeanor convictions to day reporting centers instead of jail -- subject to approval by the chief circuit judge in that magistrate's court district.
The emotional speech on the Senate floor last week by Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, was further evidence of how widespread the problem has become. He told colleagues that he and his family buried a "family member" on Monday, March 18, that "got hooked on prescription drugs 10 years ago."
He said the deceased family member was struck by a coal truck at 3 a. m. in the morning while walking along a road in Wyoming County. Sen. Green also indicated he had received "hundreds of e-mails" regarding this bill and that he has no opposition to the legislation.
When it became apparent that the state Senate and House of Delegates had different views on the governor's proposals for overhauling the public education bill, members from both houses hammered out a relatively quick compromise to keep that legislation on the fast track. This eliminated concerns that the issue might end up in a last-minute conference committee the final week of the session.
Hopefully, the bill passed by the Senate last Thursday will be treated in similar fashion since there does appear to be a general consensus in both houses on this issue.
Certainly the alternative answer to the state's current crowded prison situation that would involve as much as $200 million for another state maximum security jail is less appealing.
There are always several bills introduced at each legislative session that qualify only as a "waste of time." One of this year's entries is SB417 which would require random drug testing of members of the Legislature along with individuals receiving public assistance or unemployment compensation.
Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, is the lead sponsor. Others include Sens. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; Mike Green, D-Raleigh; Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming; David Nohe, R-Wood; and Chris Walters, R-Putnam. So far this bill hasn't gotten any traction in the Senate and since it was referred to three separate committees there before it could be reported to the floor for a vote, it's fate seems certain at this point.
Another issue that seems unlikely to get any traction in the final three weeks of the 60-day session are in several proposals to increase requirements of identification for voters. Still, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant is keeping a wary eye on several such bills, including one to require a photo ID for any prospective voter at the polls to produce before being allowed to vote.
Both Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, and House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, have indicated they don't anticipate taking up any of the bills that have been offered to require any additional requirements for voter identification at the polls. But Tennant has established a "nonpartisan voting rights protection coalition" just to be on the safe side.
Evidence that the state's fiscal health is not as good as the governor would like it to be surfaced last week when he announced a hiring freeze for the rest of the 2012-2013 fiscal year that ends on June 30. He said general revenue receipts so far this year are running nearly $35 million below expectations at this point. The directive affects only those jobs and vacancies that rely on general revenue receipts.
This hiring freeze applies to agencies in executive branch of state government only and doesn't extend to the legislative or judicial branches. And even in the executive branch, the hiring freeze applies only to positions and vacancies that are funded from general revenue sources and does not affect those that rely on special revenue sources.
The governor also said any exceptions would be considered on a case-by-case basis and he doesn't anticipate any layoffs or furloughs.
Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.
The Herald-Dispatch welcomes your comments on this article, but please be civil. Avoid profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, accusations of criminal activity, name-calling or insults to the other posters. Herald-dispatch.com does not control or monitor comments as they are posted, but if you find a comment offensive or uncivil, hover your mouse over the comment and click the X that appears in the upper right of the comment. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal Facebook page, uncheck the box below the comment.