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Pretrial bill a ''hell of a bargain,'' Supreme Court official says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury said Wednesday that a new bill that would give county officials the ability to release low-level criminal defendants from jail before their trials would generate big jail savings.

"It's a hell of a bargain," Canterbury told members of the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Canterbury said that the pretrial release bill (SB 584) is geared toward criminal defendants who do not have the money to post their relatively small bail amounts to the court system. In jail, they cost taxpayers $48.80 per day. Out of jail, the county would pay only $7 a day for monitoring, he said.

"People who are sitting in jail pretrial are there because they don't have the means to afford getting out," Canterbury said. "Basically, they are sitting there because they are poor."

Sen. Sam Cann, D-Harrison, introduced the bill last month, and it passed the Senate by a 33-0 vote. The legislation appears to stem from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's $25 million Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which aims to alleviate the state's prison and jail crowding issues by increasing funding for "risk-based" community corrections programs.

The bill calls for a review board made up of at least one county prosecutor, defense lawyer, and various county officials to review the regional jail intake, and identify low-level criminal defendants who cannot post their bail.

The panel would then make recommendations to a county magistrate or judge, who would have the last say on whether the inmate gets released.

State groups representing the commercial bail-bonding agency have ramped up lobbying efforts since the bill left the Senate last month.

West Virginia Surety Bail Bond Association President Bill Garvin said that most of his business comes from defendants with smaller bail amounts. The county pretrial release programs would essentially turn into competitors, he said.

"Our bottom line? Basically we lose money," Garvin told Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell.

Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, said that it's not clear that bondsmen would lose business because of the bill, and it's not clear that county pretrial release programs would be cutting into the bondsmen's clientele.

"I don't really understand the concerns of the bail bondsmen," she said. "Because if you need [pretrial release], you don't have any money. That's the truth of it."

The bill also requires inmates to stay in jail for 48 hours before they are eligible for the pretrial release program, which would allow bonding agencies to do business with the defendants who have the means to immediately get out.

"I think it's where it leads to," said Phil Reale, a lobbyist for the American Bail Coalition. "If you have a liberally constructed pretrial release program, you may have a public safety issue in the community."

State monitored pretrial release programs have already been in operation since 2009, under a bill lawmakers passed last year that authorized the Supreme Court to establish up to five pilot projects.

Some pilots were more successful than others. Brooke County officials reported a 19 percent decrease in regional jail spending since 2009. Wood County's jail bill, however, went up 26 percent during that same time frame, according to a February Gazette report.

Counties were also not required to track some statistical information, like instances when pretrial release inmates fail to show up for their court dates, which advocates say generally determine whether a pretrial program is successful.

Cabell County Western Regional Day Report Center Director Chris Dean and Brooke County pretrial release coordinator Jim Lee said Wednesday that the failure to appear rates in their respective counties have hovered around one percent.

The bill also calls for the Supreme Court to set the administrative rules for the pretrial release programs under the new bill. It's not clear at this point whether failure to appear rates will be tracked.

"I think that's something the courts would probably look into," Canterbury said. "I would definitely be for that. Why not put that in the database?"

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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