Prison Overcrowding

Unless state officials reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails, a federal judge probably will order them to do so.

State prisons are packed with hundreds of inmates more than they were designed for and, as a result, some have been housed in regional jails. Now they, too, are over capacity.

In some other states with similar problems, inmates have filed “cruel and unusual punishment” lawsuits. Some of them have resulted in federal judges ordering, in effect, convicts be released to provide more space in prisons.

To avoid that in the Mountain State, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin introduced a bill to reduce the prison population over time. Last week state senators already approved the measure by a 33-0 vote.

However, a measure in the Senate bill to release eligible non-violent offenders six months early and enter them in closely supervised release programs was opposed by a majority in the House of Delegates. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed the legislation but scrapped that portion of the bill.

Some delegates, including House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, said they had no problems with supervised early release; however, the Senate’s bill allowed too much randomness in the granting of early release. This bill would give a judge the option of sentencing non-violent offenders to prison with a six month early release. It would not affect anyone already in prison.

The House version of the bill also makes it mandatory for all counties to have drug courts in place by July 2014. That was later amended by the House Finance Committee to July 2016. Thirty West Virginia counties, including Wood, currently have drug courts.

There are problems with the House measure. For one, it reduces the savings of Tomblin’s original bill from $27 million a year to $18 million. It also would not provide any immediate relief to the current prison overcrowding problem.

The amended bill should reach the floor for a full vote by Friday. If passed, it will be returned to the Senate for a vote with the House changes. If that is voted down, it would go to a House-Senate conference committee to see if a compromise could be found.

Some legislative resolution must be found to this problem. As stated, if the state can’t-or won’t- find a solution, the federal courts quite possibly will. And if that happens, the prisoners ordered released early by a federal court mandate might not all be of the non-violent type.