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Senate Judiciary

Will Price West Virginia Legislative Photography West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, left of center, presides over a committee meeting Monday. The committee voted to have the West Virginia Sentencing Commission review a bill rewriting the state’s criminal laws instead of advancing the bill with five days left during the 2021 legislative session.

Instead of rewriting West Virginia’s criminal code, the state Senate will consider a bill that asks the members of the West Virginia Sentencing Commission for their input on House Bill 2017.

The bill would have changed the state’s criminal code, particularly its sentencing guidelines, by establishing a classification system for judges and magistrates to use when sentencing people for criminal convictions from petty crimes all the way up to the most violent felony offenses.

Now, the bill simply states that the Sentencing Commission should consider the version of HB 2017 that the House passed on March 31 in its review of the state’s criminal laws and sentencing guidelines before it is set to report to the Legislature in 2022.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said there wasn’t enough time left in the 2021 legislative session for senators to review the 409-page bill, but he commended House of Delegates Government Organization Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, and other current and former lawmakers on the bill.

Trump said he spoke with Steele, telling him it wouldn’t be possible for the Senate to take up HB 2017 in any meaningful way.

“What I thought would be the minimum and reasonable thing we could do with the substantial amount of work that was done with those delegates, rather than have that bill wither and die on the vine, send it to the West Virginia Sentencing Commission the House’s work product and ask them to examine it and scrutinize it further in the execution of the mission they were given,” Trump said.

West Virginia’s criminal laws define crimes and their sentences one-by-one.

In the form in which the House passed HB 2017, it would have kept most of the definitions of the state’s crimes the same.

Instead of there being as many possible sentences as there were crimes, there would be a limited number of sentencing classifications for judges and magistrates to use.

Each crime would have corresponded with a defined sentencing classification, depending on the severity of the crime. Each classification has a sentencing range for judges to consider when handing down a sentence.

The law would have allowed for judges to add more time on a sentence or move it to a more severe classification if a crime involved aggravating circumstances, like taking place near a school or if a first responder were the victim.

The bill was set to increase potential time in prison for 200 felony crimes. Critics of the bill said it was likely to increase the state’s jail and prison populations.

Steele was part of a working group that reviewed West Virginia’s criminal laws and compared them to other states that had likewise remodeled their criminal laws during the past 20 years. Steele was joined by Delegate Nathan Brown, D-Mingo, and former delegates John Shott, R-Mercer, and Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall. Neither Shott nor Canestraro sought reelection in 2020.

During Monday’s meeting, Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Perri DeChristopher briefly answered questions from Trump via teleconference.

DeChristopher serves on the state Sentencing Commission, and she is the president of the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

DeChristopher told Trump she appreciated the committee’s decision to let the Sentencing Commission review the bill.

“The bill as it’s written needs much more oversight from folks that work with that type of law, criminal law, every day,” DeChristopher said in an interview after the meeting. “There are lots of laws that need attention to become more modern laws in their application. We made some progress on a few of those laws during this legislative session. To do it all in one fell swoop without time to really digest is not, I do not think, was helpful to anyone.”

The West Virginia Sentencing Commission is set to report to the Legislature in 2022.

The 2021 West Virginia Regular Legislative Session is set to end April 10.

Reach Lacie Pierson at lacie.pierson@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @laciepierson on Twitter.

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