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Groups Push New WV Bail Reform Law to Stem COVID-19 Spread in Jails

A new West Virginia state law requires a faster hearing if a defendant with a low-level misdemeanor charge can't afford bail. (Adobe Stock)
A new West Virginia state law requires a faster hearing if a defendant with a low-level misdemeanor charge can't afford bail. (Adobe Stock)
August 21, 2020

CHARLESTON, W. Va. -- A coalition of prison reform groups is asking court officials in West Virginia to make better use of the newly passed bail reform law to lower jail populations and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The call comes just days after multiple novel coronavirus cases were confirmed in regional jails in southern West Virginia, with hundreds of tests still pending.

Lida Shepherd is director of the Economic Justice Project at the American Friends Service Committee of West Virginia, a coalition member.

She said the risk of COVID spreading behind bars is too high to continue funneling so many people into already overcrowded jails.

"The legislation was really important before," said Shepherd. "But it couldn't be more important now that people are released on personal recognizance bonds. And if we're talking about public safety, the real threat to public safety right now is this virus."

According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 57 people incarcerated at the South Central Regional Jail have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Aug. 19.

House Bill 2419 aimed to reduce the number of people incarcerated pretrial for low-level misdemeanor and felony charges. It requires a hearing within 72 hours if a defendant can't afford the bail or to post bond, according to Shepherd.

She said she thinks the law is essential during the pandemic to relieve chronically overcrowded jails where the virus easily spreads, as well as surrounding communities.

"This affects the people who are incarcerated. You know, over 50% of them who are in the jails are pre-trial," said Shepherd. "They've not been convicted of a crime. This affects the people that staff these facilities. And it really does affect all of us who live in the community where people come and go out of these facilities."

She said the Southern Regional Jail is one of the most overcrowded in the state. It has bunk beds for 468 people, but housed 727 as of Aug. 8.

Of those, around 57% were pre-trial defendants who had not yet been sentenced.

Diane Bernard, Public News Service - WV