Last updated: July 18. 2013 2:14PM - 162 Views
David Gutman
Associated Press

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia lawmakers dramatically changed the governor’s prison reform bill on Tuesday, requiring every county to participate in drug court programs and putting limits on how non-violent offenders are granted early release.

The version passed by the Senate would have released all non-violent offenders six months early into supervised treatment programs. But the House Judiciary Committee changed that, leaving it up to the sentencing judge. That means early release would not be granted to anyone currently in prison or sentenced before July 1.

The Senate version of the bill was expected to save the state $27 million next year by halting growth in the state’s overcrowded prisons. The change to the early release provision means that next year’s expected savings fall to $18 million.

Prison crowding has reached crisis level, with every prison bed filled and about 1,700 prisoners housed in regional jails never meant to hold offenders for long stays. Neither version of the bill would substantially decrease the current population. While both focus on halting growth, neither guarantees the state will not need to spend around $200 million on a new prison.

The change to the early release provision came from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office after delegates expressed concern.

While the bill was approved unanimously, the amendment mandating drug court programs for every county passed narrowly 14-11, with mostly Republican support.

Drug courts currently operate in 30 of the state’s 55 counties and have successfully helped prevent drug offenders from ending up in jail again. The recidivism rate for the state’s drug courts is 9 percent, compared with about 80 percent for people convicted of similar crimes in regular courts. Steve Canterbury, an administrator with the state Supreme Court, cautioned that that figure could be misleadingly low because drug courts are so new in the state. However, drug courts across the nation have recidivism rates around 20 percent, well below regular courts, he said.

It costs about $7,000 per person per year for the treatment and supervision ordered by drug courts, versus about $25,000 to keep someone in prison for a year.

Carl Reynolds with the Counsel of State Governments directed the nine-month study of the state’s prison system that formed the basis of Tomblin’s bill. Reynolds said that a major theme of the bill was the need to devote resources to drug treatment, something that drug courts would do. But Reynolds also said that drug courts are less successful if the local community doesn’t want them.

“There’s this local buy-in, it’s not just the judge, it’s the prosecutor, it’s all these other people and they’re kind of jamming it down everybody’s throat, so that’s a problem. It may be a surmountable problem,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds also said that simply setting up a drug court does not guarantee that there are drug counselors and drug testing available.

“The problem that drug courts all around the country have is they’ve got the judge, and the docket, and the team and everything, but there’s no treatment resources available,” Reynolds said. “There is some danger that limited resources that are available are being spread more thin.”

Canterbury estimated it would cost $4 million to $5 million to implement the expanded drug courts.

Del. Justin Marcum was one of 11 Democrats who opposed the drug court amendment. Marcum said that the Supreme Court already had the ability to put drug courts in place and that the legislature was overstepping its bounds.

The state constitution gives the legislature the power to establish courts, but it gives the Supreme Court supervisory control over all forms of lower courts. Canterbury said that the Supreme Court’s lawyers would give deference to the legislature but would check the specific wording to see if the amendment establishes a new court or infringes on the Supreme Court’s administrative authority.

The bill also institutes one year of mandatory post-release supervision for violent offenders and would no longer revoke probation or parole for minor or technical violations.

The House Finance Committee also passed the bill on Tuesday, changing the deadline for when drug courts must be set up to 2016.

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