CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia is repealing, updating or expanding dozens of state laws this month, and the wide array of topics include prison conditions, tanning salons and Supreme Court elections.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed 217 bills passed by the Legislature this year. More than half of them take effect this month, with most becoming law July 12. Around 25 took effect Monday, the start of the state's new budget year.
Perhaps the highest-profile measure targets West Virginia's inmate crowding crisis. Starting July 12, circuit judges can begin including six-month early supervised release terms when they sentence non-violent offenders. The courts will also begin using a research-supported method to assess an offender's needs and risks. That legislation also sets a timetable to expanding the drug court system, deemed successful in deterring repeat offenses, to all 55 counties.
Jason Pizatella, Tomblin's deputy chief of staff, cited how such state entities as the Division of Corrections, regional jail authority and Supreme Court have worked together to make this new law work. The state has led the nation in the growth of its prison population, and more than 1,700 convicted felons are serving sentences in regional jails because the state's prisons lack the needed bed space.
"This is really going to require a team effort," said Pizatella, who was the governor's legislative director until his promotion Wednesday.
The legislation reflected findings from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. The U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pew Center on the States funded the in-depth study of West Virginia's criminal justice system. Pizatella said project team members will remain in the state for another year to help carry out the new law's provisions.
Another measure that took effect this month should help ease prison crowding. On Monday, the Industrial Home for Youth, which had been a facility for juvenile offenders, became the Salem Correctional Center for adults. The switch should help resolve a legal challenge that targeted conditions for juveniles at the Harrison County campus. Its residents are moving to other facilities. It will also add 400 beds to the adult prison system, with inmates expected to arrive later this summer, Pizatella said.
Also starting July 12, children under 18 will need a parent's written consent before hitting a tanning salon. A separate measure bans sexting by youths while offering an alternative to juvenile criminal charges.