CHARLESTON -- A newly signed bill gives the state Supreme Court the ability to establish five pre-trial release pilot projects across the state.
The law, which goes into effect July 7, was signed Wednesday by Gov. Joe Manchin, who said the new law will make West Virginia safer, save money on regional jail costs, and make the administration of justice more efficient.
"The population of our jails and prisons is rapidly increasing," Manchin said. "We are dealing with that every day on budget matters.
"When you have all branches of government working for the citizens of the state, it speaks volumes. This is the good that comes out of all of us working together."
Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury, who also is the former executive director of the state Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, praised the idea.
"This is the natural outgrowth of community corrections, proving that we were, and we still are, on the cutting edge," Canterbury said.
Canterbury said by starting the project in five areas, officials can monitor the programs and easier make changes if necessary.
The projects are based on a program that has been operating in Brooke County for several months.
There, when a law enforcement officer arrests someone he or she believes is a good candidate for the program, the officer calls the magistrate on duty. That magistrate signs a release allowing the defendant to participate in the program rather than go to jail on bond while awaiting trial. The defendant must appear the next day to meet with a pre-trial officer who does a criminal background check and prepares a report to give to the prosecutor and a supervising magistrate or circuit judge.
Under the new law, only people charged with non-violent misdemeanors and felonies will be eligible for the pre-trial release pilot projects.
While on pre-trial release, the defendant reports regularly to a pre-trial officer, wears a global positioning device, or is on home confinement, whichever is deemed most suitable by the supervising magistrate or circuit judge. The defendant must continue to work and pass regular urine checks.
Canterbury said it seems to have worked so far in Brooke County.
"The jail population has dropped dramatically," he said. He didn't have the specific numbers available, but he said the decrease was from about 40 or so inmates a day to about 15.
"That's a significant drop," he said. "And that is a lot of money saved, too."
Canterbury said Brooke County has been paying about $5 per day per inmate to help defray the cost of testing and supervision instead of $48 to place the inmate in jail.
Supreme Court Justices Robin Jean Davis and Thomas McHugh attended Wednesday's bill signing ceremony.
"We are delighted with the signing of the bill," Davis said. "It shows we are a very, very progressive state and a very progressive Court."
The purpose is to keep non-violent people out of jail while they are awaiting adjudication of charges against them, said Jim Lee, who is the chief probation officer in the First Judicial Circuit of Brooke, Hancock, and Ohio counties. Although the Brooke County Commission pays $5 a day for every person in the pre-trial program, that is far less than the $48.50 cost of housing a prisoner one day in a regional jail.
In Brooke County, a five-person pre-trial committee also meets every Monday morning to review the case of all Brooke County prisoners in the Northern Regional Jail. That panel refers as many cases as possible to the pre-trial program with the goal of having those defendants appear before a magistrate that afternoon so they can be released that afternoon.
The Brooke County program so far has been able to reduce that county's number of regional jail inmates from an average of forty-one per day to about fifteen per day, Lee said.
"It saves the county commission on the regional jail bills and it helps on the overcrowding of the regional jails," First Judicial Circuit Judge Martin J. Gaughan said. "It saves money and it's common sense. It does work and there's evidence it works."
The new law requires the pilot projects to be established in five circuits using existing community corrections resources, specifically pre-trial officers and day report centers. The location of the pilot projects has not been determined.
Canterbury -- who with Gaughan and Lee are considered by many the founders of community corrections in West Virginia -- said the Supreme Court will file annual reports to the Legislature on the progress of the pilot projects.