CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- First offenders of prostitute-related crimes in Charleston will no longer face jail time, as City Council passed a bill Monday evening that leaves only a fine up to $500 as punishment.
The new prostitution ordinance will apply to pending cases -- an element that had some council members voting against the ordinance.
"Perception bothers me," said Councilman at-large Jerry Ware. "A couple [people] have said, 'If that had not come to light, would we be doing this right now?' And that's my question. ... Ethically for me, I can't vote for that."
Ware, along with many other council members, made reference to the July arrest of lobbyist and Charleston attorney Phil Reale as part of a prostitution sting on the city's West Side. The Charleston Police Department issued a news release listing the names of those arrested, but Reale's was omitted.
The citation was dismissed without prejudice, which means the city could re-file the charges against Reale within a year.
There are currently 28 pending first-offense prostitution cases in the city, according to city attorney Paul Ellis.
Mayor Danny Jones spoke from the council floor in support of the bill. While Jones said the revelation of the Reale incident moved the city to take action, he said the idea was one that has been discussed for years.
"I've been thinking about this for a long time," Jones said. "Did this serve as a catalyst? You bet it did."
Ellis said making the law retroactive -- or, applying it to pending cases -- eliminates legal issues for the city regarding those pending cases.
"To leave that group of 28 pending cases in limbo ... that was going to be legally problematic," Ellis said. "If their lawyer stood up and started making arguments about that, I don't have a crystal ball, but I think the determination would be that they wouldn't be subject to jail time anyway."
Councilman Jack Harrison, the chairman of the ordinance and rules committee that approved the bill last week, said the ordinance needed to be passed so the city wouldn't be obligated to provide jury trials or attorneys for those charged and "to reflect the reality of what we're doing."
The city hasn't given a jail sentence to a first offender for prostitution in decades, according to Jones.