CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's prison reform bill unanimously passed the state Senate on Thursday, with lawmakers from both parties singing its praises.
Senators passed the bill 33-0, with one member absent. The legislation is set to be introduced in the House of Delegates on Friday.
The bill would create early, supervised releases for nonviolent offenders, shorten sentences for probation violators and allow judges to sentence certain offenders to drug treatment programs instead of jail. Violent offenders who do not receive probation would serve their full terms but also be supervised for one year following their release.
The legislation closely follows recommendations from a January report by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments.
Researchers said the measures would cut the state's prison population and reduce inmates' risk of reoffending. That would save the state $148 million between now and 2018, mostly by avoiding the costs of building a new prison.
Speaking before the vote, Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said other states that have worked with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and adopted similar legislation have greatly reduced recidivism rates among prisoners.
He said while the bill is not a "cure-all," it "does a lot of great things."
Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, a former sheriff, called the bill "well-researched" and "thoroughly vetted."
He said West Virginia has one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the nation over the last 10 years, forcing the state to house around 1,700 of its prisoners in regional jails.
Laird said regional jails are not equipped to offer the services prisoners need to rehabilitate and return them to society, and keeping the inmates in jails has only caused an increase on inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence.
He urged lawmakers to avoid posturing and opposing the bill just to appear "tough on crime."
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, made a similar plea.
He said he has heard some legislators, particularly those in the House of Delegates, say the bill is soft on crime because it allows some criminals out of jail early.
Hall said he does not see it that way. He pointed out the bill actually increases violent offenders' time because it adds a one-year mandatory supervision period to the end of their sentences.
He said early releases for nonviolent offenders are a smart move, too.
"It makes sense to me that, even if you let somebody out six months early, and you supervise them, that recidivism will be less," he said. "The statistics show that."