The West Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday adopted a bill that will overhaul the state’s criminal laws and sentencing guidelines.
The House adopted House Bill 2017 by a margin of 76-22 with two delegates not voting Wednesday, the last day of the 2021 legislative session for bills to pass from their originating body.
Clocking in at 409 pages, House Bill 2017 is meant to update the state’s criminal code both in terms of what constitutes a crime in the 21st century in West Virginia but most significantly establishing a sentencing classification system for judges to apply in criminal cases.
The state’s criminal laws currently define crimes and their sentences one-by-one.
If HB 2017 becomes law, the definitions of those crimes will remain largely the same, but instead of there being as many possible sentences as there are crimes, there will be limited number of sentencing classifications and guidelines.
Each crime will correspond with a defined sentencing classification, providing for what’s referred to as more definite sentencing. Each classification has a sentencing range for judges to consider when handing down a sentence.
Everyone who talked about House Bill 2017 said it was a long overdue effort to rewrite the criminal code, parts of which still include laws that were transferred from the State of Virginia to West Virginia Code in 1863.
A group of current and former delegates spent the past year working on the bill.
The group was led by House Government Organization Committee Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, who was the lead sponsor of HB 2017.
“I think this is a great bill,” Steele said. “It’s a great starting place for us to update and modernize our code as many of our sister states around the country have done over the past 20 years. We’ve been lagging behind that.”
Joining Steele were Delegate Nathan Brown, D-Mingo, and former delegates John Shott, R-Mercer, and Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall. Neither Shott nor Canestraro sought re-election in 2020.
People speaking against the bill said the practical effect of the bill would create a burden on the state’s regional jails and prisons, which already are strained by the number of people incarcerated.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 6,041 people incarcerated in West Virginia’s 10 regional jails, according to a COVID-19 data sheet the Division of Corrections supplied to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
The regional jails are equipped with 4,265 beds.
There were 3,894 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons, which have 5,427 beds.
House Bill 2017 increases the time a person would spend in jail before they’re eligible for parole for more than 200 felony crimes.
Part of the bill includes aggravating factors that would increase a person’s sentence if they commit a crime near a school or against police officers or other judicial employees or officers. If a person is sentenced for a crime that has one of those aggravating factors, they won’t be eligible for parole until they serve one-third of their sentence.
That provision of the bill is what concerned Delegate Joey Garcia, D-Marion.
Garcia also pointed out that the Legislature in 2020 established the West Virginia Sentencing Commission to review the state’s criminal code and sentencing guidelines.
The commission is set to report to the Legislature in 2022.
Garcia said the bill was a massive undertaking, and that this year wasn’t the right year because the people who operate the state’s judicial and incarceration systems hadn’t been part of the process.
“We have lost that fundamental process of bringing people in who have fundamental experience, who know how this is going to affect what they do, and I don’t, we don’t know” Garcia said. “I think it’s important as legislators that we know that we do not know everything. If it takes another year, it takes another year, but let’s get this right.”
House Bill 2017 establishes six classes of felonies and three classes of misdemeanors.
Each class carries a determinate sentence for each crime. That means each crime has a set range of time, or a cap on the amount of time, a person can be sentenced to jail or prison when they’re convicted of a crime.
The bill would not be retroactive to people currently serving sentences for criminal convictions.
The work group who drafted the bill worked to make the new sentencing guidelines match the current sentences. For example, current law has the sentence for first-degree murder as being life in prison, with potential for mercy.
Under the bill, first-degree murder is a Class 1 felony, with a minimum sentence of life with mercy and a maximum sentence of life without mercy, meaning a person never could be eligible for parole.
There will be three classifications of misdemeanors under the proposed law.
A Class 1 misdemeanor would be the most severe, with a sentence of up to one year of incarceration. Class 2 misdemeanors would carry a sentence of up to six months incarceration, and a Class 3 misdemeanor would have a sentence of up to 90 days.
There still would be increasing penalties for multiple convictions of certain crimes, like shoplifting, which is a misdemeanor on the first and second offenses, but can become a Class 6 felony upon the third offense.
Below misdemeanors are petty offenses, which only would have people paying a fine and serving no jail or prison time.
The bill also updates property crime laws for inflation and to hitch certain dollar amounts’ worth of property damage to certain sentencing classifications.
Anyone convicted of a property crime that causes less than $2,500 in losses or damage would be guilty of a petty crime.
Crimes causing between $2,500 and $25,000 in damage or losses are Class 6 felonies, and crimes with more than $25,000 in damage or losses are Class 5 felonies.
House Bill 2017 will advance to the Senate for consideration.