Senate unanimously passes Tomblin’s prison reform bill - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Senate unanimously passes Tomblin’s prison reform bill

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The less contentious of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's major reform proposals for the 2013 Regular Legislative Session, the prison overcrowding initiative, unanimously passed the full Senate March 21.

But Senate Bill 371 didn't just pass quickly and quietly. Three lawmakers stood on the Senate floor before the vote to speak in support of the measure, which went relatively unchanged throughout the process so far.

One of those changes did away with revocation of probation or parole for minor violations. Instead, those offenders would have lesser penalties under the latest version of the bill. The bill would require pre-trial risk assessments for people within three days of their arrest and placement in a regional jail; it would require supervision for all prisoners immediately after their release; and non-violent offenders would be released to supervised programs six months early.

The bill calls for $25 million during the next five years to fund the increased supervision as well as drug and alcohol treatment provisions called for in the bill. That spending is expected to save $116 million during those five years by stemming prison population.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, explained parts of the bill, and said the state's prison population currently stands at 7,500, and that number is projected to increase 18 percent during the next five years if no changes are made.

"This bill is significant in that it will help control our prison population, but it's just as significant in that the piece regarding requiring supervision for all the folks that are released – whether they be non-violent or the violent offenders – significantly helps reduce recidivism," Palumbo said. "This bill really does a lot of great things."

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, stood to explain why he was voting for the bill because he recently had heard criticisms of the bill.

Hall said the early release issue has been described by some as "being soft on crime."

"My decision to vote yes is on the fact that it makes sense to me that even if you let somebody out six months early and you supervise them, the recidivism will be less," Hall said. "And if you allow them to stay six more months without supervision, recidivism will be more; the statistics show that."

Hall said the bill might not make everyone happy, but it was based upon research and action taken in Texas.

"It was a Republican legislator who actually saw the issue of needing to possibly build new prisons that led the charge down there in order to get the kinds of policies that are in this piece of legislation," Hall said.

Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, said Huttonsville Correctional Center is in his district, along with regional jails, and called the bill "a step in the right direction."

We, as a government body, we can't cure our social ills," Barnes said after explaining that problems with truancy, teen pregnancies and high school drop out numbers are all connected to the prison population.

"All we can do is take little steps to tray and correct what we can."

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, said throughout his career in criminal justice and law enforcement, he had been called a lot of things, but soft on crime wasn't one of them.

"In our consideration of this important measure of public policy, the temptation may exist … to pound on your chest and proclaim, ‘I am tough on crime,'" Laird said. "In my experience, I feel no need to do so.

"What does concern and alarm me is the fact our state prisons and regional jail systems are busting at the seams."

Laird said 900 offenders are incarcerated each year for non violent offenses or by people with no documented histories of violent crimes.

"We allow nearly 900 offenders to max out their sentences, walk out the side door of our prisons with absolutely no form of community supervision whatsoever, and this bill fixes that problem," he said. "In the end, I would maintain this legislation will not only help to flatten the curve of our prison population growth but will also make us safer in the communities in which we live."

The bill now goes to the House of Delegates for debate.