(03/20/2012)
A bill that would have addressed critical prison overcrowding stalled and died in the Legislature.

Even though the Democrat majority in the House would have been able to pass the bill without Republican help, concern from the House's top Republican helped block the bill, which the Senate had passed 34-0.

The issue centers on reducing jail-able offenses for non-violent crimes, particularly crimes related to drug violations.

West Virginia has among the highest rates of incarceration in the USA and the money it takes to do it in the USA, and is facing building another prison.

That's despite the state, in national statistics, has a relatively low crime rate.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, left Democrats with the impression he would try to hold up a major study of the overcrowding problem if the Legislature passed the plan.

The prison bill was the product of a year's work by lawmakers who had studied prison overcrowding, a problem that has plagued the state for years.

Now, the issue will be studied again, while some WV counties are in the red trying to pay jail bills.

House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said an official from the Division of Corrections requested it be removed from the agenda Saturday, the last day of the 60-day session, after unproductive talks between the agency and some Republicans.

But it retained two measures that would have helped nonviolent drug addicts get treatment and possibly earlier exits from lockup. Officials estimate the vast majority of prisoners have substance abuse problems. The bill also would have made a dramatic change in how hundreds of convicts each year would spend the last six months of their sentences. Under the plan, every prisoner - even those who didn't get parole - would have been let go on supervised release a half year early.

A proposal to shift resources to a drug treatment program and release program went down the tube.

The bill that Corrections backed was meant to allow criminals with substance abuse problems to receive intensive drug treatment and be released after a year with a judge's approval.

An Armstead-backed amendment would have made prisoners wait six months before they could receive drug treatment.

Such treatment and early release programs in other states have helped reduce overcrowding and saved millions.

Politically, elected officials are wary that the public think they are soft on crime.


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