Prison-file Content Exchange

(The Center Square) – As some states are passing bills to ease sentences for criminals, a West Virginia House committee is taking the opposite approach—advancing legislation to increase the time in prison for certain criminal activities.

House Bill 2017, which advanced through the Judiciary Committee, would increase sentences for several crimes and put certain felonies and misdemeanors into certain classes. The bill is being pushed by some Republican lawmakers whose party holds a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature.

Unlike many states, West Virginia has unique sentencing guidelines for individual crimes, rather than lumping them into classes. If passed, the legislation would put crimes into certain classifications and would increase the penalties for more than 200 crimes, according to the West Virginia ACLU.

“It takes West Virginia in exactly the wrong direction on criminal law reform,” Billy Wolfe, the communications director for the state’s ACLU chapter, told The Center Square. “It is a throwback to some of the worst ‘tough on crime’ policies from the War on Drugs era that have proven to be ineffective at making us safer."

The legislation would punish Class 1 felonies with life in prison. Class 2 felonies would get between 15 and 60 years in prison. Class 3 felonies would receive between five and 30 years. Class 4 would be between three and 15 years. Class 5 would be between two and 10 years. Class 6 would be between one and five years.

Under the legislation, Class 1 misdemeanors would have a one year maximum, Class 2 misdemeanors would have a six month maximum and Class 3 misdemeanors would carry a 90 day maximum.

The maximum fines for criminal activity would also be determined by the class of crime: Class 1 felonies would carry up to a $10 million fine, Class 2 felonies up to a $5 million fine and all other felonies up to a $1 million fine. For misdemeanors, a Class 1 would have a maximum $100,000 fine, Class 2 a maximum $50,000 fine and Class 2 a maximum $10,000 fine.

Another reform in the bill would allow circuit court judges to change Class 6 felony convictions into Class 1 misdemeanors.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill to create a West Virginia Sentencing Commission to reevaluate sentencing guidelines. The commission is set to provide recommendations by Jan. 1, 2022.

“We urge [lawmakers] to allow the Sentencing Commission to do its work,” Wolfe said.

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