CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Two key House of Delegates committees on Tuesday unanimously approved Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's prison overcrowding bill, but not before removing a major piece of the original legislation.
Seeking bipartisan support for the legislation, House Judiciary Committee members voted to scrap a provision in the original bill meant to automatically allow eligible non-violent offenders to leave prison six months early and enter into intensive supervised release programs.
The move was intended to help alleviate overcrowding in state prisons by releasing about 300 prisoners sometime this year. It was expected to save the state about $27 million in incarceration costs.
Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy adviser for the Justice Center, told committee members Tuesday their changes would reduce that projected savings to $18 million.
The changes also would not provide any immediate relief to the state's overcrowded prisons.
Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, vice-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the committee had to remove the early-release provision to get enough bipartisan support to pass the legislation.
"I was very satisfied with the Senate's version in that regard. But it is a matter of trying to gain consensus," he said. "And I'm OK with the consensus."
Tomblin's prison overcrowding bill, Senate Bill 371, was crafted according to the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative released earlier this year.
The group said West Virginia could reduce costs and prisoner recidivism rates by allowing some non-violent offenders to leave prison six months early and enter into a supervised release program.
There would be no change in sentences for violent offenders already in state prisons, but violent offenders sentenced after July 1, 2013 would serve their full sentences and also receive a year of supervised release.
State Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury said those releases would have occurred automatically some time this year under the original version of the bill, after the Division of Corrections had time to set up the supervised release program.
The bill now will give judges the option of sentencing offenders to prison with six months' early release. There would be no reduction in sentence for inmates already in prison.
The state Senate passed Tomblin's prison overcrowding bill last month on a 33-0 vote, with members of both parties speaking in support.
Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, a former sheriff, called the bill "well-researched" and "thoroughly vetted."
He said the state is keeping many of its prisoners in regional jails because prisons are bursting at the seams and that has led to an increase in inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, addressed some delegates' concerns that the bill is soft on crime because it would allow some criminals out of jail early.
Hall 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."