W.Va. passes bill aimed at reducing jail, prison populations

For the entire legislative session, there have been more people incarcerated at the state's jails than there are beds in those jails


By Lacie Pierson
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Even as they wrapped up work on criminal justice reforms Saturday, West Virginia legislators acknowledged there likely still was more work to do to balance the scales of justice in the Mountain State.

The Legislature this session passed a series of bills meant to decrease the state’s jail population and make it easier for people convicted of crimes to get a job and back on their feet after they’re released from prison.

By decreasing the jail and prison population, another goal is to decrease the cost of incarceration, which is paid by counties and the state. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
By decreasing the jail and prison population, another goal is to decrease the cost of incarceration, which is paid by counties and the state. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The most substantial among those bills was a bail reform that crossed the finish line Saturday evening with about five hours left in the session.

Senate Judiciary had House Bill 2419 for more than a month before advancing it earlier this week.

Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said he heard from a judicial officer that when officials in one circuit went to review their jail population, they found it was common for people who can’t afford to pay their bail to remain in jail on charges that don’t even have a jail sentence.

“The bill tries to strike the right balance between making sure that people maintain their right to reasonable bail … without jeopardizing public safety and providing, leaving in, the discretion of judicial officers,” Trump said.

By decreasing the jail and prison population, another goal is to decrease the cost of incarceration, which is paid by counties and the state. But one part of that cost wasn’t considered in any legislation this year, said Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Cabell.

“What also complicates this is municipalities can send people to jail and they don’t have to absorb any of the cost whatsoever,” Plymale said. “In that respect, that’s up to the county totally.”

Trump told Plymale that would be something they would have to address in a future session.

If the bill becomes law, magistrates would have to release people from state custody on a personal recognizance bond if they are arrested on certain charges instead of issuing a cash bail and sending them to jail if they can’t pay.

People would qualify for a personal recognizance bond if they’re charged with certain misdemeanors that don’t involve violence, a deadly weapon, a minor, a drug crime, crimes of a sexual nature, a traffic crash causing injury or death, or receiving and transferring stolen property worth more than $250.

Magistrates would retain some discretion to issue bail if a person has a known criminal history or any other factors that may make them a threat to themselves or their communities.

If they do issue bail, magistrates have to give the defendant the least restrictive bond conditions that ensure the person’s safety, as well as the safety of the community at-large.

The bill also requires a prosecuting attorney and defense attorney be present at every hearing in which bond will be an issue, except for the defendant’s initial arraignment immediately after they’re arrested.

When a magistrate does issue bail, the dollar amount can’t be more than three times the maximum penalty for the alleged crime.

If a person is incarcerated because they can’t afford to pay bail, the magistrate will be required to hold a hearing for the defendant within 72 hours.

Magistrates cannot connect defendants with bail bonding companies if the magistrate has a personal relationship with the responsible bondsman.

In November, Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsy Jividen told legislators the state’s jails were “bursting at the seams.”

For the entire legislative session, there have been more people incarcerated at the state’s jails than there are beds in those jails.

On Wednesday, eight of the state’s 10 regional jails were over capacity.

In total, there are 4,265 beds available at the regional jails, and there were 5,168 people incarcerated throughout the state on Wednesday.

Messina provided jail population data to the Gazette-Mail on Jan. 15, when the House passed HB 2419, and there were 5,024 people incarcerated in regional jails.

Among other bills affecting the criminal justice system that the Legislature passed, or was near passing as of press time, was Senate Bill 130.

Senate Bill 130 makes it so the decision to suspend someone’s driver’s license for driving under the influence will now be part of their criminal case in magistrate court, rather than an administrative process with the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

Under current law, a person’s criminal case is processed in the relevant magistrate court, but the decision as to whether their license should be suspended as part of their punishment is in the hands of the Office of Administrative Hearings in the DMV.

If the bill becomes law, the Office of Administrative Hearings would close by July 1, 2021.

House Bill 4509 was one vote away from being completed legislation at press time Saturday.

If passed, the bill would mostly affect the administrative function of the state Parole Board, moving it to be part of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

That bill goes hand-in-hand with another bill that completed legislation on Friday.

Senate Bill 620 provides assumed parole for people convicted of certain crimes.

That bill allows people convicted of certain non-violent crimes to automatically become eligible for parole once they serve their minimum sentence.

With parole being a function under the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation would be able to authorize home plans for people released from prison on parole, taking some of that responsibility from the West Virginia Parole Board.

People whose crimes involve actual or threatened violence, deadly weapons, or felony-level drug offenses aren’t eligible for the program. A person who commits a crime where a child or an animal is the victim also would be excluded from receiving automatic parole.

Inmates also would have to complete an individualized rehabilitation program and meet other requirements in order to qualify for automatic parole.

During a Joint Judiciary Committee meeting on Jan. 6, Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials estimated between 1,000 and 1,600 inmates would be released from prison in a given year under parole reform in general, although no specific parole reform proposal was decided upon at that meeting.

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©2020 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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