WV House of Delegates passes prison reform bill - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

WV House of Delegates passes prison reform bill

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After much debate in the West Virginia House of Delegates, a bill to reform the state's prison system is on its way to becoming law.

The House passed Senate Bill 371 April 12 after about a half hour of debate. That followed an attempt April 11 by Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, to amend the bill. All four of Armstead's amendments were rejected, paving the way for an 81-17 vote.

Armstead said both days he thinks the bill contains some good provisions, but it ignores other aspects of the criminal justice system that also need to be addressed, such as prevention and deterrence.

"I absolutely want to see us supervise people better than we're doing now," Armstead said before the vote. "I don't think we need to do that at the expense of public safety by letting people out."

Armstead was referencing a provision in the bill that allows some offenders to be placed on supervised released as much as six months early for good time.

West Virginia's prison and regional jails systems are hugely overcrowded in part because of a growing substance abuse problem. A House Judiciary Committee amendment attempts to alleviate that by expanding the drug court program into all areas of the state, a provision Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, said is the strongest in the bill.

Drug courts "are an excellent, excellent step forward," Kump said before the vote. "That will do more to reduce recidivism than anything else in the bill."

However, Kump voted against the bill because he thought things should be added to the it, drawing from Armstead's amendments, to study the sentencing structure. Kump said his suggestion to the Senate would be to take the House's amended version and strip out everything except the expansion of the drug court program "and go from there."

But Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said the Senate would most likely concur with the House amendment and pass the bill as it stands now.

Delegate John McCuskey, R-Kanawha, said the bill will help save "a generation of West Virginians" who continue to fall victim to the growing prescription drug abuse problem. He has reiterated several times throughout the process that the bill "is about saving people, not about saving money."

"I think what we need to do is make sure we use this platform to begin the dialogue to figure out how to keep people from getting arrested in the first place," McCuskey said.

Delegate Carol Miller, D-Cabell, pointed out that nearly everyone in West Virginia is affected by the drug abuse problem in some way.

"Addiction has been proven to be detrimental on our families and our children," she said before the vote. "We also have a huge problem with overcrowding in our prisons. Many of these inmates commit crimes to feed those addictions.

"They cycle in and out of jail and our prison system. The question is: how do we effectively break this cycle?"

Miller said organizations in Huntington, including the Healing Place, are modeled off similar organizations in other states and are working to prevent drug abuse before it escalates. She said the legislation could be yet another stepping stone for people trying to get over their addictions.

"We are taking a giant leap forward in helping our citizens turn their lives around, giving them the tools they need to turn their lives forward rather than backwards," she said.

But the Legislature has missed other opportunities to help addicts, said Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell. Instead of investing in slot machines or the gambling industry, she said perhaps the Legislature should have invested in drug abuse prevention.

"That's an equation we haven't really talked about in this bill," Sobonya said. "Most people are in the regional jail system because of a drug problem. But what are we doing before they become drug abusers? We should have had drug prevention at the front end."

But Delegate Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said the drug court program and day report centers will help with the prevention efforts.

"Once you change the mindset and the culture of those who enter this system … hopefully they will be an inspiration and move others to get out of the life of drugs," he said. "Maybe not, but that's the hope."

Because the House changed the bill, it must now go back to the Senate which will either concur with or reject the amendment. If the Senate concurs, the bill will pass and go to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for his signature.