Emily Allen Published

W.Va. House Passes 400-Page Bill For Criminal Sentencing Reform

Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw speaks with Delegate Brandon Steele on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

A bill to rewrite state law for hundreds of criminal offenses cleared the House of Delegates following less than half an hour of debate Wednesday.

Over the course of nearly 400 pages, House Bill 2017 updates hundreds of crimes and replaces the state’s process for sentencing with a six-felony, three-misdemeanor system of sentencing ranges.

The legislation alters Chapter 61 for “Crimes and Their Punishment,” but doesn’t deal with Chapter 60a for the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, which contains drug crimes, or Chapter 62 for criminal procedure.

“This is a great bill,” said Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, who is its lead sponsor. “It’s a great starting place for us to update, modernize our code, as many of our sister states around the country have done over the past 20 years.”

However, by introducing a new “determinate” sentencing system that provides judges ranges they can choose from for sentencing — therefore, giving greater discretion to the court — the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Association has said the bill will restrict their ability to promise predictability and structure to victims who testify in court against their abusers.

The bill also increases the minimum jail time requirements for more than 200 felonies. Lawmakers who worked on the bill and support it say this was an “unintended consequence,” but they made no amendments or suggestions to change this.

The legislation passed the House on the last day possible, with only 10 days left to the rest of the legislative session — despite the fact lawmakers have been working on the bill since April 2020, according to attorneys for the committee.

Debate on Wednesday was capped at 30 minutes at the request of House Majority Leader Amy Summers, who said delegates had the option to attend an optional Q&A on the bill Monday night.

Del. Joey Garcia, D-Marion, said Wednesday the way the bill increases sentencing time contradicts different reform-related legislation the Legislature has already agreed to pass.

“That’s going to increase the amount of time, the amount of people that are in our regional jails, and that are in our prison system,” Garcia said. “Even after we’ve been working on all of these different efforts for reforms — we’ve worked on re-entry, we’ve worked on housing, we’ve worked on jobs, we’ve worked on diversion. All of these things are good things. But this is a fundamental change to how our system works on a day-in and day-out basis.”

Advocates for criminal justice reform, including West Virginia chapters of Americans for Prosperity and the Center on Budget and Policy, say the revamped code will lead to an expensive increase in incarcerated populations.

Steele said Wednesday on the House floor that he had spoken to several criminal justice-related groups and people working in the field while working on this bill, with four other delegates from the House Judiciary committee. His remarks come as some from those groups, such as the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Association, say they didn’t learn about this bill until the legislative session began.

Delegates who voted against the bill Wednesday — the bill passed 76 to 22 — asked why the House couldn’t wait on a sentencing commission that the Legislature agreed to create in 2020.

The 13-member group, consisting of public defenders, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges, state officials and lawmakers, is tasked with studying criminal laws for a report that will come out in January 2022. They’ll meet for the second time this year on April 9, 2021.

Steele has said that the bill isn’t an attempt to undercut the commission’s work, and that the group can still consider chapters 60a and 62.

The bill now awaits the Senate for consideration.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.