The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 21, 2013

Prison overcrowding may require tax hikes

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Among the uglier words in the political language book is one that starts with the letter “T,” and Senate President Jeffrey Kessler didn’t shy from using it Wednesday after a prison reform measure advanced for a vote.

Overall, the bill gained the hearty support of a man with vast law enforcement experience — Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, a four-term sheriff in his home county.

Laird applauded provisions for early release of non-violent offenders and post-release supervision of ex-convicts.

Beneath the surface of West Virginia’s crowded system of corrections, from regional jails to the prisons, beats the heart of the congestion — substance.

None can argue that this isn’t the leading culprit of over-population, with some in the know insisting that four-fifths of everyone behind bars is there for abusing either alcohol or hard drugs.

How, though, does West Virginia cope with the enormous cost of getting the addicted clean so they can re-enter society?

“You can’t build the resources or facilities available to treat these people without probably $20 million or $30 million,” Kessler, D-Marshall, said after the floor session.

“And how do you get there? That may mean using the ugly word (beginning with) ‘T,’ which is tax. It may be the sin taxes.”

Talk about hiking taxes on alcohol and tobacco products is generally taboo, he noted, but abusing both is often a reason why some are led down the path of serious drug addiction.

Kessler said drug addiction is “a plague and it is an equal opportunity destroyer,” not limited to the ranks of the welfare or ghettos but one that touches all socio-economic strata.

“Both from people that are poor, those that are on welfare, those that are middle class and those in the halls of this mighty dome,” he said.

“It is a significant problem. It’s not an issue that we can address just with a magic wand. It’s going to take a sustained and significant commitment by this state’s resources to address this issue.”

Laird, who co-chairs the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, hailed SB371 as “the product of a long process,” using the advice of experts in corrections.

“I feel confident that passage of this bill will go a long way in beginning to bend the curve in the continued growth of our prison population in West Virginia,” the senator said.

Laird praised the measure for the element of encouragement to rely more on alternative sentencing for non-violent criminals who otherwise would be kept behind cars.

Another key portion is the early release of some non-violent offenders with a stipulation they be supervised once on the outside, he said.

“One of the serious problems we have in West Virginia is our recidivism rate and part of that is due to the fact that each and every year we have nearly 900 people leaving our state correctional facilities under no supervision requirements whatsoever,” Laird said.

“I think the supervision requirement will greatly strengthen the public safety aspect of the bill in addition to having the effect of reducing population levels.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed huge changes in the prison system at a time when some 1,800 state-sentenced inmates are being stashed in the 10-unit regional jail system.

“We just absolutely have to deal with this problem,” Laird said.

“The future is now as far as the prison over-population goes in West Virginia.”

If the bill works as intended, Laird said county governments can expect to see relief down the road in regional jail expenses, which, in some regions, have imposed burdens almost impossible to shoulder.

“Regional jail expenses are a serious problem for our county governments,” he said.

“I think the continued promotion of alternative sentences for appropriate types of crimes is important and continued growth of home confinement is an option certainly, as well as day report centers. Those are things that I think hold the potential for dealing with those budget problems at the county level.”

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Meantime, senators passed on 33-0 votes three bills.

One, as explained by Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, would let first responders — sheriff’s deputies, state troopers and firefighters — carry and administer opiate antagonists in emergencies.

Palumbo said SB27 requires certain training and provides immunity to responders operating in good faith.

Another bill, SB441, alters state law to withdraw tax liens filed prematurely, inadvertently or erroneously without impairing one’s credit rating.

A third measure, SB477, permits electronic registration of voters.

This may be done at a secured registration system by typing in the required information and transferring it electronically, along with the personal signature of the voter, to the secretary of state’s office and relevant county clerk office, Palumbo explained.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com