The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday revived two bills that are meant to reduce the state’s jail and prison populations.
It was the first time the committee advanced the measures that respectively will provide bail reform on the front end of a criminal case and potentially reform sentencing on the back end of such cases if they become law.
The House of Delegates passed similar bills in 2019, but neither one advanced past the Senate Judiciary committee.
Committee members cautiously approved House Bill 2419 with a few changes, with Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, saying the bill needed more work before he would be willing to vote it into law and Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, saying the committee may have taken the teeth out of the bill.
“It takes care of one small part of the problem,” Clements said. “I think what has happened — we put so much stuff back into it, I don’t think we’re going to accomplish what we set out to do with this legislation.”
With three days left in the 2020 legislative session, both of the bills approved by the committee are expected to be reported to the Senate Thursday morning.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, eight of the state’s 10 regional jails were over capacity, according to data provided by Lawrence Messina, director of communications with the West Virginia Division of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
In total, there are 4,265 beds available at the regional jails, and there were 5,168 people incarcerated throughout the state.
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.
Each regional jail has a different capacity. The jails with the highest margin of overpopulation were North Central Regional Jail in Doddridge County and Southern Regional Jail in Raleigh County.
North Central is equipped to house 564 inmates, and 844 people were incarcerated there Wednesday morning. Southern, equipped for 468 inmates, housed 691 people Wednesday morning.
South Central Regional Jail, about a 15-minute drive south of the Capitol, was overpopulated by 68 people Wednesday morning.
The state’s prison facilities weren’t overpopulated at a similar rate Wednesday, but they all were either at capacity or were within 50 people of reaching their capacities, according to the data Messina provided.
There are 5,427 beds in the state’s 13 prison facilities, and there were 5,359 people incarcerated there Wednesday.
The prison population was 5,303 on Jan. 15, when the Gazette-Mail last reported that information.
West Virginia’s prisons house inmates who are serving sentences for felony offenses. The regional jail system houses people who are awaiting trial and those who are serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes and some nonviolent felonies.
House Bill 2419 would require magistrates to release people from state custody on a personal recognizance bond after they’re arrested on certain charges instead of issuing a cash bail and sending them to jail if they can’t pay.
The House of Delegates approved the bill on Jan. 29, and it had been in the hands of Senate Judiciary Committee members since Jan. 30.
People would qualify for a personal recognizance bond if they’re charged with certain misdemeanors that don’t involve violence, a minor, a drug crime, or a traffic crash causing injury or death.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday amended the bill to say people accused of crimes of a sexual nature or receiving and transferring stolen property worth more than $250 would not be eligible for a personal recognizance bond under the law.
Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell proposed the amendment regarding property worth more than $250, saying people in the midst of substance abuse disorder are likely to steal more when they’re under the influence to support their habit, and he didn’t want to turn the bill into a “catch and release” program.
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.
The committee also amended the bill that Weld said will, in effect, will require a prosecuting attorney be present at every arraignment hearing in magistrate court.
The bill originally included a measure saying that when a magistrate sets bail, it couldn’t be more than the maximum financial penalty of a given crime. The committee increased that to say the bail couldn’t be more than three times the maximum penalty.
They also added provisions saying magistrates must give notice and conduct a hearing before altering a person’s bond and that magistrates cannot connect defendants with bail bonding companies if the magistrate has a personal relationship with the responsible bondsman.
West Virginia Sentencing Commission
The House quickly passed House Bill 4004 in the first week of the session on Jan. 15, and it had sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee since Jan. 16.
The bill would establish a 13-member committee whose task would be to collect data and other research to establish a better understanding of the state’s criminal sentencing system, with the goal of making reforms.
Legislative goals, as supported by the committee’s work, would be to ensure prison sentences are appropriate from the relevant crimes while upholding judges’ abilities to use their discretion on a case-by-case basis when handing down sentences.
The committee would include prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement representatives, legislators and a representative for substance abuse addiction and recovery.
If HB 4004 becomes law, the committee will have to report by the legislature by January 2021.