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WV House passes bill affecting bail in misdemeanor cases

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Members of the House of Delegates approved a measure Thursday that seeks to change guidelines for how magistrates in West Virginia set bond in certain misdemeanor cases.

House members approved House Bill 4511 by a margin of 94-4 Thursday afternoon and sent it to the Senate. The bill would more clearly define when magistrates should set a property or financial bail for defendants in misdemeanor cases, and when they should release defendants on their personal recognizance while their cases are pending in the court system.

House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the bill was an attempt to relieve the financial burden of operating the state’s regional jail system.

It costs $48.25 per inmate per day to house someone in one of West Virginia’s regional jails, according to the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

In fiscal year 2016-17, a total of 47,328 people were incarcerated in regional jails in the Mountain State, and 40,127 of those admissions were people who were waiting to stand trial, according to data from the department.

As of August, 13 counties were 90 days past due in paying their jail bills.

If the bill becomes law, magistrates will have to release a defendant from the state’s custody on their personal recognizance in misdemeanor criminal cases, unless the alleged crime has one of these elements: Actual violence or a threat of violence; the victim is a minor; use of a deadly weapon; a serious misdemeanor driving offense; or a violation of drug laws.

Even when the case involves the aforementioned elements, there still is language in the bill that gives magistrates some discretion on a case-by-case basis, Shott said.

Those who debated the bill Thursday mostly spoke in favor of it. Four delegates voted against the measure: Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley; Tom Fast and Kayla Kessinger, both R-Fayette; and Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh.

Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, asked Shott if the bill would affect how magistrates and circuit judges decide if defendants will return to court to face charges if they are released on bond.

Through those requirements, magistrates and circuit judges have to consider factors including a defendant’s criminal history, education level, employment status and connections to their community to determine whether they are likely to return to court to face their charges.

Shott said the bill would not affect those factors, referred to as “Ghiz factors” for the West Virginia Supreme Court case in which they were established.

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, asked how the bill would affect the bail bonds industry.

“We did not give great concern to the bail bondsman industry, if you want to know the truth,” Shott said. “We were more concerned about the individuals who might be wrongly or inappropriately imprisoned and also regarding the counties’ regional jail bills.”

Delegate Rodney Miller, D-Boone, also spoke in support of the bill.

“All people that may have committed crimes don’t necessarily go to prison,” said Miller, a former Boone County sheriff. “Some folks just made a mistake. It’s proper to get them out in a timely fashion. I think this addresses that and covers the protections that are afforded everyone in the constitution.”

Eli Baumwell, policy director for West Virginia’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill wasn’t perfect, but was a necessary first step to fixing the “inefficient and ineffective” bail system.

“We’re pleased the West Virginia Legislature is taking strides to correct the broken bail system,” Baumwell said. “It’s a glaring flaw in our justice system that an offender should have to sit in jail — unable to work and/or care for his or her family — simply because they are too poor to pay.”

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

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