West Virginia Prison Reform Bill Expands Drug Programs

CAHRLESTON, W. Va. — Legislators of West Virginia are poised to sign into law a prison reform bill that hopes to ease overcrowding and also expand substance abuse programs for inmates.

Senate Bill 375, proposed by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and passed by the House in an 81-17 vote last week, permits the early release of non-violent inmates and the extension of drug court programs in order to address substance abuse related recidivism.

“We talk about making sure risk assessments are done to see, if they are released, how will they be back in society,” said Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha. “Somehow, somewhere along the way we’ve lost this message, it is about making sure that people are rehabilitated.”

The bill, including its estimated reduction in recidivism, is expected to save the state $18 million over the next year. State officials have also recommended the building of a $200 million prison to relieve overcrowding, but it is unknown if SB 371 would provide significant change enough to end that discussion.

The House version of the bill added two significant amendments. One is the mandate to extend drug court programs to 25 West Virginia counties who are currently without these programs by 2016. Approximately 75 percent of West Virginia inmates are serving sentences for a drug related crime, according to a 2010 report commissioned by the governor on prison overcrowding.

The other amendment, which has caused some controversy, is the supervised early release of non-violent inmates with a judge’s approval. House Minority Leader Tim Armstead argued to remove the amendment allowing for six-month early release saying the correctional system is not solely based upon rehabilitation efforts. There are four elements of the corrections system that must be taken into account and balanced, Armstead said.

“That’s punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, keeping those people who commit crimes away from the public to recommit crimes and rehabilitation,” he said. “All four of those factors have to be balanced and combined. And it’s a challenge, and it is always a challenge for this body, or any body, to balance those correctly.”

Armstead’s efforts were voted down. However, the House bill, as opposed to the Senate bill, requires an approval by a judge.

House Judiciary Chair Tim Miley said legislators should recognize this bill not as one that allows offenders early release, but rather a bill that provides extended supervision and increased focus on non-violent offenders while making certain that violent offenders aren’t released due to overcrowding.

“This bill is designed to enhance public safety, first, and savings second, and we think this bill does that,” Miley said.