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Tom Miller: Prison overcrowding issue goes down to the wire

Apr. 14, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

The comments by Chief Justice Brent Benjamin of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals about West Virginia's growing problem of overcrowded prisons -- made during the final days of the 2013 session of the Legislature last week -- were very timely and right on target.

He described the current conditions in state prisons as "a tidal wave that's coming" while legislative leaders and the governor were trying to work out differences on the administration's plan to reduce the prison population that some of those involved believe could save the state over $100 million during the next five years.

Unlike Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's proposal to address the state's problems in elementary and secondary education which was approved by lawmakers relatively early in the session, efforts to find an acceptable solution to the overcrowded prison conditions in West Virginia were still unresolved in the House of Delegates during the final days of the 60-day legislative session.

One of the major concerns for both House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, and Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, was the portion of the proposed legislation that would allow some nonviolent offenders to leave prison early on a supervised release program.

This provision that was in the bill approved by the state Senate was removed by the House Judiciary Committee because members believed the move was necessary to get enough bipartisan support to pass the legislation in the House of Delegates. This difference seemed destined to become a difficult issue to resolve between the House and Senate in the final days -- and perhaps final hours -- of the session.

Justice Benjamin worries that if lawmakers delay action to address this problem, someone will sue the state and he believes the dispute could make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He wants lawmakers to accept a six-month early release program and insists the concerns of some legislators are unfounded.

He points to the state's success already with a small drug court program that now includes 20 adult drug courts and 16 drug courts for juveniles. These courts are costing the state about $3 million a year -- most of it for drug testing and court administrators' salaries. Justice Benjamin told a Charleston newspaper last week the state would have to pay $21 million to keep these same people in state prisons.

Only about one in 10 of adult drug court graduates end up back in jail compared with nearly one-third of those involved in traditional incarceration methods. And the statistics are even better for juvenile offenders with only 14 percent of drug court graduates winding up back in jail compared with half of those subjected to traditional juvenile justice.

Leaders in both the House and Senate were hopeful they could find an acceptable compromise to cope with this state's overcrowded jails and prisons before the session adjourned at midnight Saturday. Otherwise, the alternative of continued overcrowded prisons will continue to be a growing concern.

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There were a total of 1,829 bills introduced at the just-completed 2013 regular 60-day session of the West Virginia Legislature that adjourned in Charleston at midnight Saturday. The 34 members of the state Senate were responsible for 665, which figures out to an average of nearly 20 bills per member.

In the House of Delegates, according to the computerized list of bills at this legislative session, a whopping 1,164 bills were introduced by the 100 members -- an average of less than 12 per member. House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, was a sponsor of 87 bills and late last week 52 of those bills were still in the House committees that these bills were assigned to when they were introduced.

Boggs' bills list, however, pales in comparison to the 172 introduced by Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson. Snyder is a sponsor of numerous bills that various state agencies submit for changes in rules -- a total of 119 -- but only 30 of his other bills had advanced past the original assignment to a Senate committee after they were introduced.

With only two days remaining in the session last week, there was a total of 29 bills that had completed action in both chambers, including 16 that began in the Senate and 13 that started in the House of Delegates. So the usual log-jam during the final days -- and hours -- was guaranteed as usual.

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After all the hullabaloo surrounding the House of Delegates' vote on a bill to remove tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike in 2020, the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wasted no time shelving HB3163 in favor of a year-long study instead.

Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, who chairs that committee, offered a resolution seeking a year-long interim study of this issue which will include the results of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's special blue ribbon highways committee that is due to present its findings and recommendations later this year. Since no one is talking of removing the tolls until the revenue bonds sold to pay for construction of the 88-mile toll road are paid off in 2019, there is still ample time to address this issue.

Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.

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