The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 22, 2013

GOP House leader urges caution on prison reform bill

Senate OKs Tomblin’s bill 33-0

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Criminals might get a free pass and never spend an hour in prison if their offenses can be tied to drug abuse under a Senate-passed bill to ease crowded conditions, cautions a Republican leader in the House.

With little discussion Thursday, the Senate approved the measure proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on a 33-0 vote. Approval came at a time the state is wrestling with congestion that finds some 1,800 state-sentenced convicts awaiting transfer to prison in the 10-unit regional jail network.

As he awaited the bill in the House, Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, voiced concerns on a number of fronts, not the least of which is a potential escape if a felonious act can be linked to drug usage.

Armstead pointed to a provision that lets judges detour convicts into a drug treatment program in lieu of incarceration as a means of cleaning up addicts.

“As it’s written, though, it would apply to any crime, basically,” he said.

“You may have been on drugs and robbed someone, you would be eligible for this alternative sentence and basically not be punished at all. You would just have drug treatment. And that’s just not acceptable.”

Extending parole to someone whose only offense was to abuse drugs is one matter, he said.

“But to say that simply because someone is using drugs and they commit another crime, but they only get drug treatment and not incarceration, that’s just wrong,” the GOP leader said.

Armstead also addressed the graduated sanctions for violating parole.

“I don’t think anyone is saying that someone should go back to jail for two or three years simply because they were late getting in or something like that,” the delegate said.

Armstead said a convicted child molester, for example, could get a briefer sanction if he violated an order to stay away from schools or other places where children are found.

“There are some minor violations of parole that maybe you don’t put them back in for the full term,” he said.

“But certainly, if those violations are of terms that are designed to protect the public, protect the victims, we don’t want to allow them to have a lesser penalty for doing it.”

Another source of concern is the six-month early release feature in SB371.

“Now, they say these are non-violent offenders, but the definition of violent and non-violent are unclear and pretty broad as far as what would be considered a non-violent offense,” Armstead said.

A number of Democrats have told him they, likewise, are concerned about certain provisions of the measure, he said.

“No one is trying to kill this bill, or say we don’t have a prison overcrowding problem,” Armstead said.

“But at the same time, we can’t solve that problem by putting the public in danger, and that’s what this bill would do, in my opinion.”