More people are currently incarcerated in West Virginia’s regional jails than there were in 2020, when the Legislature passed a bail reform law meant to decrease the state’s jail population.
That includes 2,681 people who have not been convicted of a crime.
All of the state’s regional jails were operating well over their intended capacity when the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee met Monday to discuss jail population and potential bail reforms, according to data presented to the committee by Quenton King, criminal justice policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, as well as data provided by the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“Certainly, this subject is something that’s been important not only to us here, in the House, and I think in the Senate, but also to many of our colleagues at the local municipal level,” said Joint Judiciary Co-chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha.
During Monday’s meeting, 5,390 people were incarcerated in regional jails, according to data provided by the state Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. On Jan. 29, 2020, the day the House of Delegates passed the bail reform bill, there were 5,100 inmates in the regional jails.
There are 4,265 beds among the 10 regional jails.
Brad Douglas, chief of staff for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, presented data breaking down other incarceration information — including data showing what times of day people were jailed based on incarcerations from July and August 2021.
Of those people who were incarcerated, 48% were arrested on weekdays after business hours, between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., when some counties don’t have magistrates on duty to arraign them.
Later during Monday’s meeting, Olubunmi Kusimo-Frazier, director of magistrate services for the West Virginia Supreme Court, said state law does not require magistrates to go out for initial appearances after an arrest outside of courthouse business hours. They are required to respond only to domestic violence cases during those times, she said. That can lead to people being incarcerated without bail while they await arraignment.
“One of the issues with respect to 24-hour magistrate on call would be in rural counties, where the magistrate would be versus everyone else,” Kusimo-Frazier said, noting that the Supreme Court equipped magistrates with smartphones to make it easier for them to respond to their local court’s needs on a 24-hour basis. “The goal of our division currently is to get to a place where we’re very technologically sound and can do things in a very flexible manner, so that we can service our counties to the best of our ability.”
There’s plenty of opportunity for lawmakers to take action to alleviate the stress on the state’s incarceration system and everyone involved from magistrates and county commissions to corrections officers and the inmates themselves, King told the committee.
Lawmakers’ questions during the meeting indicated the broad reach of entities involved in the corrections and incarceration system, and largely focused on magistrate training and practices, staffing levels in jails and correctional facilities, and the authority and activities of bail bondsmen.
King told lawmakers they passed House Bill 2419 with good intentions, but the only time the jail population decreased since the law went into effect in June 2020 was at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when state and county officials worked together to release people from jail to limit exposure and spread of the virus.
The law requires magistrates to release people from custody on a personal recognizance bond if that person was arrested on certain nonviolent charges, instead of issuing a cash bail and sending the person to jail when they can’t pay it. The American Friends Service Committee lobbied for the Legislature’s support of the bill.
Earlier this year, based on the jail population, King told the Gazette-Mail it was “obvious magistrates aren’t following it to the letter.”
“I think this body has done the right thing in giving county prosecutors and magistrates the tools to make an impact, and safely and effectively reduce the pretrial population,” King told lawmakers Monday. “I think they’re fumbling the ball.”
King said the Division of Corrections keeps good data related to incarceration, including charges and bail amounts, but there’s limited data regarding magistrate activities.
“It’s unfortunate that I’m not able to tell you which prosecutors and which magistrates are better or worse than others,” he said. “Over the last year, I’ve run into wall after wall chasing after data I think would be really helpful in studying this.”
King suggested that lawmakers establish some sort of data tracking on the magistrate level to determine where the law is working and where it isn’t. He said some states, including New Jersey and Illinois, passed their own bail reform laws with success in lowering jail populations without a spike in crime.
“These sorts of things take commitment and time,” King said. “I think that’s an issue that we should all get behind.”