By Mannix Porterfield
A Senate panel Wednesday gave its unanimous blessing to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s prison reform package to resolve what Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein considers “a crisis” in overcrowding.
The bill seeks to relieve overcrowding on a number of fronts, including money dedicated to treating drug addicts and enhanced supervision to reverse a trend of recidivism. It now goes to the finance committee for more scrutiny.
“We’re in a crisis stage,” Rubenstein told the senators, noting that there are 7,058 state-sentenced inmates in West Virginia, among them 1,700 in the 10 regional jails awaiting bed space.
Rubenstein said his daily concern, when meeting with staff, is how they can deal with crowded prisons and regional jails.
“You can only pour so much in the pot before it boils over,” he said.
“The numbers speak for themselves.”
Absent approval of the legislation, Rubenstein said two alternatives suggest themselves: intervention by the courts or building a new prison, conservatively in the neighborhood of $200 million.
Erecting a new facility is no solution, the commissioner told the committee, because, “like the old adage, if you build it, they will come.”
“This gives us an opportunity to get smart in a manner to protect our state, to protect the safety of our state and our citizens, and tackle this situation,” he told Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha.
Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy adviser for the Council of State Governments, Justice Center, said the bill would set aside $3 million for drug rehabilitation the first year, and $5 million annually thereafter, but would prove to save taxpayers $100 million ultimately.
Senate counsel Tom Smith said the “underlying purpose is to improve public safety and enhance supervision overall.”
“A lot of people characterize this bill as being sort of soft on crime, and I think it is not, in any way, shape or form,” Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said.
Half of the convicts exiting prison, no matter how long they have served, face no supervision whatsoever, but “the biggest thing” in the measure is to improve supervision, Smith said.
As of July 1, violent offenders would be placed on a year’s supervision, while non-violent ones would be subject to six months.
“I’d say the required supervision is the high point of this bill,” the Senate counsel said.
“Recidivism is lower because you’re helping people re-orient themselves in the community. With supervision, if there’s going to be a violation, it’s caught earlier and usually with less severe violations than with no supervision at all.”
Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, suggested one problem in the parole process is that state-sentenced inmates housed in regional jails simply cannot get the required programs there that are mandatory before going to the board seeking release.
If he were thrown into such a situation, Snyder said he likely would file a class action suit on behalf of himself and other inmates.
In fact, Rubenstein said, litigation in that regard already is pending in court.
“I’m not being critical,” Snyder told the commissioner. “You have your hands full.”