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Truancy sentence ruled overly harsh

By Mackenzie Mays, Staff writer

The state Supreme Court of Appeals refused this week to reject the conviction of a Kanawha County parent who pleaded guilty to a truancy-related charge. But justices did agree that the woman’s sentence was unfairly harsh.

In 2012, a Kanawha County first-grader allegedly accumulated 15 and a half unexcused absences from school, according to the ruling. Anyone in West Virginia who fails to respond to a school notice following their child’s five unexcused absences shall be guilty of truancy, a misdemeanor, according to state law.

The child’s mother, Beth Bennett, said her child had mononucleosis, and was later able to prove excuses for some of the absences. But that still left five unexcused absences, and Bennett was subsequently charged with truancy. She pleaded guilty, and Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom fined her $50 plus court costs, placed her on probation for 90 days and required her to serve five days of community service, likely to be served at her child’s school.

But Bennett appealed Bloom’s decision. She said she was mislead by Kanawha school officials and believed that if she pleaded guilty, her husband would not be charged.

The Supreme Court affirmed Bloom’s ruling, saying that Bennett’s guilty plea was entered properly. However, the Supreme Court reversed Bloom’s decision with regard to Bennett’s sentencing. Under state law, a person convicted of first-offense truancy is subject to one of two sentences: a fine plus court costs, or attendance at school with the child for the entire day.

Justices said Bloom should have chosen one of the two options, rather than both.

“Having imposed a fine and court costs, the court had no authority to order [Bennett] to perform five days of community service,” the opinion says. “Because the court chose to impose a fine and court costs in this case and did not suspend that sentence, the court had no basis to place [Bennett] on probation. ... For the same reason, the court committed reversible error by ordering [Bennett] to perform five days of community service. Like probation, community service is a sentencing alternative that a court has the discretion to impose.”

Justice Allen Loughry wrote the opinion. The case was sent back to Bloom so he can sentence Bennett again

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or at 304-348-4814.


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