West Virginia Senate President Bill Cole, the Republican nominee for governor, called Tuesday for a special legislative session to address the state’s drug problem, including stiffer penalties and mandatory minimums for drug dealers.
Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, largely created in the 1980s, have been a major factor in causing prison populations to explode nationwide.
Cole stressed that he wants more drug treatment facilities for those struggling with addiction, but also tougher penalties for those who sell drugs.
“The people that I want in jail, Hoppy, are the ones coming peddling their poison from out of state,” Cole told radio host Hoppy Kercheval on West Virginia MetroNews on Tuesday.
“You want to put more people in jail?” Kercheval asked.
“Absolutely,” Cole said. “And if you tell me the jails are full, we’ll build a jail.”
Kent Gates, a Cole spokesman, said the campaign would announce details of its proposed special session next week but, in addition to mandatory minimums, it would include development of treatment facilities and support for juvenile and drug courts.
“The special session will deal with passing harsher penalties for drug pushers that include mandatory sentencing for drug kingpins who are convicted,” Gates said, as well as “providing appropriate direction to those who have fallen victim to the perils of drug addiction.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who would have to call any special session, was incredulous.
Tomblin, in a meeting Tuesday with the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, repeatedly touted the criminal justice reforms he passed in 2013, which include supervised release and more drug treatment for inmates.
Those reforms, known as Justice Reinvestment, have been credited with flattening the prodigious growth of West Virginia’s prison population and forestalling the need for the state to spend about $200 million building a new prison.
“What we’ve done in the past did not prove to be helpful, and that was putting users in our penal system. I prefer that we treat it more as an illness than we do as a crime,” Tomblin said. “If you’re going to look at, probably, the pushers out there and so forth, that’s one of those things that they need to have penalties.”
Cole’s Democratic opponent, businessman Jim Justice, did not address the idea of increased penalties and mandatory minimums, but he derided Cole’s proposal.
“Bill Cole had two years to address this important issue and hasn’t done anything,” Justice said. “Now he wants to spend taxpayer money on another failed special session, to promote himself in an election year.”
On the federal level, there recently has been a push to undo some of the mandatory minimum sentences that Congress passed decades ago.
The federal prison population was about 25,000 in 1980. It peaked at more than 219,000 in 2013, before decreasing somewhat in 2014, the first decrease in at least 25 years. West Virginia’s prison population rose nearly 500 percent over that same time.
Bipartisan legislation that would ease mandatory minimum sentences for already imprisoned nonviolent offenders is stalled in the Senate.
“We can’t lock up everybody, and we’ve got to be smarter with the dollars we have,” Tomblin said. “I’d prefer to spend our limited dollars trying to get people the help they need than I would building new prisons.”