Jails, drugs still the focus

The 2031 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature hit the halfway mark this week and finally there are indications that plans for improving this state’s public elementary and secondary education efforts aren’t the only concerns this year for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Last week, he promised to provide up to $25.5 million for this state’s prison reform efforts if the proposed legislation succeeds in making it through the Legislature before the session ends April 13. The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed the administration’s bill last Wednesday but it still must clear the Senate Finance Committee before it will be ready for a final vote on the Senate floor.

Jason Pizatella, the governor’s legislative director, said Tomblin is ready to provide up to $3 million to begin to overhaul the state’s substance abuse treatment program. And another $500,000 is earmarked to help about 1,000 prison inmates who are eligible for parole complete a successful transition back into society.

The governor is promising a total of $22 million more at the rate of $5.5 million each of the next four fiscal years beginning July 1, 2014. The initial $3.5 million will be a supplemental appropriation to the budget that requires legislative approval.

There is a suggestion that the state could save as much as $100 million during the next 10 years but that can happen only if and when these new programs are implemented and how successful they prove to be.

The governor’s bill is based on recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. This agency released a report in January that identified ways West Virginia could improve its prison system while at the same time reducing costs.

The Senate Judiciary Committee did attach two amendments before sending it on to the Finance Committee. One would increase the options available to judges when they sentence offenders to drug treatment to include “any evidence-based models of treatment.” The other was a move to shift the jail costs of individuals sentenced in drug courts from the state’s 55 counties to state government.

The bill in its current form would institute a three-strike policy for those who violate the conditions of their parole if they don’t commit a new crime or flee. The first violation would mean a 60-day sentence and the second violation calls for a 120-day sentence. A judge would make the call on subsequent violations.

This amendment was unanimously adopted as was the one that would shift the jail costs of individuals sentenced in drug courts from the county governments to the of state government. Currently, each county has to foot the bill for an offender’s jail time when sentenced in drug court.

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