A law outlining a new process for the release of pretrial defendants took effect Friday, June 5, as the state continues coronavirus testing for prisoners and staff in all of the state’s lockups.
Supporters say the legislation could help reduce overcrowded jails, where populations are at a higher risk of an exacerbated spread of the virus due to limited room for social distancing.
During the legislative session, West Virginia chapters of groups like Americans for Prosperity and the ACLU said the law could ultimately reduce the number of people in state custody, decreasing what local and state agencies pay to run West Virginia jails and prisons.
Gov. Jim Justice signed House Bill 2419 into law March 25, after lawmakers passed the legislation his way March 7. Less than a week before the bill’s passage, there were 5,200 people in jail. On Friday, there were a little more than 4,600 people in jail and seven out of 10 jails were over capacity.
The law requires judges to release a person charged with certain misdemeanor offenses that don’t involve violence or crimes against minors.
Those charged with drug-related misdemeanor charges under the Uniform Controlled Substances Act aren’t eligible for automatic pretrial release, under this law.
In all cases involving pretrial arrestees, the legislation emphasizes using methods other than incarceration to ensure people charged with certain misdemeanor offenses don’t skip their own trial. Such alternative strategies could include home arrest, constant supervision from a judicial officer or cash bail bonds.
This law calls on judges to use “the least restrictive” strategy possible. For cash bail requirements, which some judges require that defendants pay to secure their pretrial release, the law prohibits judges from charging more than three times the maximum fine for an offense.
For defendants who don’t qualify automatically for pretrial release, based on the type of their misdemeanor charge, the law requires judges to hold a hearing up to 72 hours after the person is placed in jail, to consider again whether there are ways other than incarceration to ensure that person will return to the court for trial.
According to the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there were 331 pretrial defendants facing misdemeanor charges in jail on Friday.
The law goes into effect as three new prisoners and one employee tested positive for the virus by Friday afternoon. Before this week, more than 100 people tested positive at the Huttonsville Correctional Center, a state-run prison in Randolph County.
The state is waiting for the results of more than 3,150 tests after collecting results from prisoners and staff at more than 15 correctional sites. The DCR still had much work to complete at five of 10 jails, four out of 11 prisons and six out of 10 juvenile detention sites, according to data Friday afternoon.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.