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Senate votes to revoke drug court mandate

By JAKE ZUCKERMAN

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Senate voted Saturday to scrap a requirement that every circuit court participate in a drug court program.

Upon full passage, the legislation would give the judicial branch control over which courts will operate a drug court and which will not. The Senate voted 20-13 to pass the bill, with one senator absent.

The West Virginia Adult Drug Court Program is an alternative to the standard criminal justice system for low-level offenders that combines supervision, drug testing, counseling and workforce training in an effort to break drug habits.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said the current legislation is a form of an unfunded mandate, and that individual circuits are best deciding for themselves whether a drug court is appropriate for their respective areas.

He added the bill will not directly eliminate any drug court, and that it authorizes the continuation of any and all drug courts as the judiciary branch sees fit.

“I think it’s wrong fundamentally for us to mandate this,” he said. “The question is, to what degree are we going to stick our nose in and operate everybody else’s business in that branch of the government. Let’s let them do the job in the best way they can for the people of this state.”

Speaking in opposition to the bill, Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, who has sponsored several pieces of legislation throughout the session calling for more aggressive prosecution on narcotic distributors, said drug courts are a key aspect of solving the state’s drug problem.

According to data he offered to the senate, since 2004, roughly 2 percent of drug court participants end up back in legal trouble within a year, and 9.4 percent return within two years. Those numbers dwarf a standard court’s return rates of 30 percent of offenders.

Additionally, he said as many as 75 to 80 percent of drug offenders who navigate through the standard court system end up back in legal trouble.

The drug court program costs about $7,100 per year, per participant, Weld said, as opposed to the $27,000 to house an inmate in jail.

Along with Weld, several other senators spoke out against the bill. Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said the drug courts have proved extremely helpful in southern West Virginia.

“These are something we should be doing more of, not less of,” he said.

Though several other senate Democrats spoke out against the bill, partisan lines blurred when Democrats sided with Trump.

Among them, Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said it doesn’t make sense for the legislative branch to force a judiciary body into a system it doesn’t want for itself.

Likewise, Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said while he appreciates the drug court system, he would be voting against the bill as a matter of principle.

“This is really a separation of powers issue,” he said. “They have a budget, we can’t control the Supreme Court budget, so if they aren’t asking for more money for this, I believe it’s a policy decision by a coequal branch of government that we shouldn’t really interfere with.”

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