CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Republican leadership in the House of Delegates took four cracks at trying to significantly change the governor's bill on prison overcrowding, mirroring its last-minute efforts to change the education reform measure.
As in that case, all the GOP attempts failed, setting the stage for the measure to be passed by the House today.
The bill already had been altered from its original form as proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
As introduced, Senate Bill 371 would have allowed some offenders deemed "non-violent" to leave prison six months early under a supervisory program. That provision was scrapped in the House Judiciary Committee to garner enough support to get the bill passed, with additional supervision for violent criminals upon release left untouched.
The changes weren't enough for House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. The bill still would let a judge include the six-month early out in the original sentence, an idea Armstead opposes.
He proposed four changes during Thursday's floor session. The first, and most contentious, would have eliminated any option for early release and instead simply called for an additional six months of supervision once an offender left confinement.
"I've yet to hear anyone say how releasing a person early reduces recidivism. Supervision reduces recidivism," Armstead said.
"There is simply no justification for letting people out of prison six months early. The only justification I hear when I ask people is the cost savings."
He said he thought it was strange to give judges the authority to grant an early-release provision at sentencing. They would have no way of knowing whether an offender was actually ready to be released ahead of schedule.
The definition of "non-violent" is too broad, in his opinion; as he reads the law, someone convicted of a DUI causing death is not a violent offender.
Advocates for the bill, including Tomblin and Democratic lawmakers argue the measure would alleviate prison overcrowding and move non-violent offenders into programs that could reduce the chances they would commit more crimes.
After changes made in the House, the bill is expected to save the state $18 million a year in incarceration costs.
Delegates who stood up to oppose Armstead's amendment cited such reasons. They also argued Armstead's amendment could take away some of the discretionary power afforded judges when it comes to changing sentences.
The House rejected the amendment by a vote of 61 to 37, with two members absent or not voting. It set the tone for the day: of the remaining three amendments, none received more than 35 votes of support.