In an effort to address overcrowding in regional jails, the West Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill to release pretrial inmates that have been charged with certain misdemeanor crimes, on their own recognizance. The bill now goes to the state Senate for consideration, where previous bills with a similar mission have failed.
Del. John Shott, R-Mercer, chairs the House Judiciary Committee and is the lead sponsor on House Bill 2419. When explaining the bill to the rest of the House on Wednesday, he called the proposal, one of several his committee is considering that have to deal with criminal justice, a “component of our effort to reform our criminal justice system.”
“You know, we can give the counties more money to pay the regional [jail] bill, but that doesn’t do anything as far as addressing the overcrowding problem that faces our [Division of Corrections],” he said.
House Bill 2419 requires judges and magistrates to give “the least restrictive bail conditions determined to be reasonably necessary to assure appearance as well as ensure the safety of persons in the community and maintenance of evidence.” In some instances, that can include releasing a pretrial defendant without bail.
He urged other Delegates on Wednesday to speak highly of the bill with members of the Senate. Last year, a similar bill dealing with bail reform died in the West Virginia Senate.
According to the Department of Military Affairs (DMAPS), which is in charge of the Division of Corrections, West Virginia’s 10 regional jails were holding about 5,100 people total on Wednesday and are at 19% overcapacity.
More than half of the people incarcerated in those facilities are waiting on a trial and have not been convicted.
On Wednesday, DMAPS reported 39% of West Virginia’s regional jail population is waiting on a state trial for felony convictions. Ten percent are waiting on a state trial for misdemeanor charges and 5% are waiting on trial for a federal crime.
On Tuesday, Del. Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall, attempted to amend the bill so that it also would apply to people facing misdemeanor charges under the Uniform Controlled Substances Act.
The amendment failed 35-60, and House Bill 2419, as passed, currently excludes anyone with misdemeanor possession charges, misdemeanors involving violence or deadly weapons, misdemeanors against minors and serious misdemeanor traffic offenses.
In an interview Tuesday after the House floor session, Shott said Canestraro’s amendment would have broadened the bill’s impact too much, which is why he voted against the change.
Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said Tuesday that Canestraro’s amendment would’ve made the bill more effective.
“It seeks to further the intent of what we set out to do when we went into this,” Pushkin said before voting on the amendment. “To save the counties money and get nonviolent misdemeanors, who are simply waiting for a trial, and when they get to that trial, they get time served and their simply there because they don’t have the money to bail out.”
Pushkin said Tuesday he suspects most of the misdemeanor charges for controlled substances are nonviolent, simple possession charges.
It’s unclear how many inmates will be affected by the bill, if passed. DMAPS spokesman Lawrence Messina estimated the most common charges that pretrial inmates face are felony charges, or the same possession and violent misdemeanor charges House Bill 2149 excludes.
Those most common charges include burglary (4.3%), grand larceny (3%), possession with intent to deliver (3%), domestic battery (almost 3%), strangulation (2%), breaking and entering (2%), domestic assault (1.74%) and possession of a controlled substance (1.59%).
House Bill 2149 also attempts to reform the bail process, regarding the amount of money pretrial defendants can pay to be released from jail while awaiting trial.
It requires judges and magistrates to give “the least restrictive bail conditions determined to be reasonably necessary to assure appearance as well as ensure the safety of persons in the community and maintenance of evidence.”
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.