Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

June 27, 2012

Work group to explore prison sentencing, overcrowding

CHARLESTON — A new work group charged with finding solutions to prison overcrowding in the  Mountain State will also be examining the issue of clarity in sentencing, lawmakers said Tuesday.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Mark Wills, D-Mercer, vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, all addressed the issue during an interview with the Daily Telegraph. The three lawmakers were also asked about the problem of violent offenders who are released by the West Virginia Department of Corrections only to often commit another crime.

“We are concerned about overcrowding and we are also concerned about making sure that violent criminals are appropriately punished,” Palumbo said. “I don’t think anyone wants to be soft on folks who commit violent offenses.”

“I agree with that 100 percent,” Wills, who was recently appointed by Senate President Jeffrey Kessler to head the Senate delegation to the Council of State Governments’ prison overcrowding work group, said. “The goal of the work group is not to have more people in prison, but to make sure our society is safer.”

Chafin said input from the state’s Prosecuting Attorney Institute should be considered as the work group moves forward with its review of prison overcrowding and sentencing guidelines.

The group was then told about a recent Daily Telegraph article that detailed the cases of three men who had been sentenced to prison for manslaughter, murder as well as sexual assault, only to be released from prison where they allegedly committed even more crimes.

“That is why we are reviewing the criminal statute,” Palumbo said. “I think we want to make sure we are appropriately  prosecuting violent offenders and not overly critical to non-violent offenders.”

“We have judges all over the state and some are more lenient than others,” Wills added. “I think in our district — in Mercer County — the judges are pretty tough.”

All three lawmakers agreed that rehabilitation, and providing education and treatment to those who are incarcerated, is key to stopping the offender from committing another crime upon his or her release from prison.

“What is happening is these people are being sentenced and they aren’t getting any treatment or education, and they are coming back and committing a crime again for the drug they are sentenced for,” Wills said.

“The (work) group will look at mandatory treatment for repeat offenders.”

The group was then asked about whether they thought the penalties for registered sex offenders — or those convicted of committing serious crimes of a sexual nature — were tough enough.

“Each judge makes the individual sentence,” Wills said, adding that from his experience judges in Mercer and McDowell counties are tough on defendants in cases involving abuse of children.

Wills said the recent prostitution arrests in Mercer County is an unfortunate example of people being arrested — and then in some instances being back on the street again in a matter of days. He pointed to the ongoing problems on the Mercer Street area of Princeton.

“You know you lock five up, and you get five more back down there,” Wills said. “The way you solve that problem is to make sure the police are out there visible. But you can’t lock a prostitute up for 10 years. You just can’t do it. When you start locking up the ‘Johns’ — that will solve the problem.”

Chafin said the more input the work group receives from the public — and the press — the more successful it will be in tackling the problems at hand.

“We will be looking at all instances of sentencing and how to address overcrowding in prison,” Wills said. “We want our communities to be safe.”

Kessler has instructed the group to “exhaust all other options” as it relates to prison overcrowding before the state is faced with the prospect of expending up to $200 million to build a new prison.

Other members of the working group are Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, and Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, along with three members of the House of  Delegates, top court officials, state agency directors and criminal  justice stakeholders. The bi-partisan working group will review trends  in the state’s criminal justice system and ultimately develop policy options for state leaders to review prior to the upcoming 2013  legislative session.

— Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com

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