Emily Allen Published

Resolution Introduced In W.Va. House Calls For More Study Of Sentencing Reform

Delegates join Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw at the podium during a floor session on Thursday, April 8, 2021.

A bill to rewrite the state’s criminal code won’t go into effect this year.

Senators agreed on Thursday to pass an amended version of House Bill 2017. That new version reversed course and requested that a newly established sentencing commission weigh in on the bill’s provisions.

House leadership decided Thursday afternoon to refer the bill their Judiciary Committee, which has no plans to consider bills for the rest of the session, basically killing that specific piece of legislation.

However, delegates introduced a resolution Thursday that if adopted would have both House and Senate leaders study some of the original bill’s provisions alongside the sentencing commission’s review.

Work on House Bill 2017 first began in April 2020. Delegates who worked on the bill, including lead sponsor Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, have described spending months on what ended up being more than 400 pages of legislation.

Although House Bill 2017 was one of the first introduced, it was among the last to pass the House of Delegates on March 31.

The Senate Judiciary Committee received the legislation with nearly a week left to the legislative session.

“It’s an important and impressive piece of work,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump during the committee. “And when I talked to Del. Steele, I think he realizes with a week left of the session when we received it, it was going to be absolutely impossible and impractical for the Senate to take it up in any meaningful way.”

Trump said his committee’s amendments to the bill — downsizing it from roughly 400 pages to a couple — was an effort to not let the conversation “wither and die on the vine.”

The sentencing commission that the bill was referred to was created during the 2020 legislative session.

The commission is a 13-member body under the state Department of Homeland Security’s Division of Justice and Community Services. It consists of prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement representatives, public officials and those from the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

House Concurrent Resolution 106, introduced Thursday and referred to the House Rules Committee, would also involve members of the Joint Government and Finance Committee in this effort.

But, both chambers must adopt the amendment, should it pass out of the rules committee. The effort has until Saturday.

As it passed the House, the bill revamped most of the offenses in Chapter 61 of state code for “crimes and their punishment.”

Most notably, the bill proposed changes to how people should be sentenced or fined for their crimes.

At present, most of the crimes listed in state code come with their own required jail time and fines for a judge to impose. A majority of these sentences are “indeterminate,” and include the minimum number of years that someone has to wait before they’re parole eligible, along with the maximum amount of time someone might have to spend behind bars.

House Bill 2017 replaced all of the indeterminate sentences with a series of “determinate” options. The legislation offers more discretion to judges than what currently exists by handing them a span of years they can pick from, depending on the severity of the crime.

Opponents to the bill pointed out this new sentencing system would have increased the bottom line people face for jail time — adding at minimum another three months of incarceration for people convicted of more than 200 types of felonies.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.