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WV Legislative Interims: Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority discusses bail and release efforts

WV Press Staff Report

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority (LOCRJCFA), on Monday, had the opportunity to question a panel of criminal justice professionals regarding the conditions and circumstances of bail and release in the state.

Joining the panel were Kanawha County Circuit Judge Maryclaire Akers, Logan County Magistrate Joseph Mendez, Tyler County Prosecuting Attorney Luke Furbee, Kanawha County Public Defender Ronni Sheets, and Tommy Weatherholtz of Weatherholtz Bail Bonding.

Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, was the first to question the panelists, beginning with Weatherholtz.

After confirming the bail bonds process – whereby the bond company charges the released person a fee to act as a guarantor for future court appearances – Fast asked, “Is there anything broken with that system?”

“Are we ending up putting non-violent defendants, or alleged offenders I’ll say because this is pre-trial, are we putting a bunch of those people in jail,” Fast continued his question. “Is this system keeping people out of jail, or are the bails being set so high that they can’t even afford you?”

In response, Weatherholtz said, “Yes and no.”

“There are a lot of good magistrates and good judges,” Weatherholtz continued. “There are certain magistrates and judges that I see across the state that are predominantly setting cash-only bonds for non-violent offenders, and I see a lot of property-only bonds for out-of-state residents. They’re forced to use West Virginia property to get out – that’s the only way they can get out.”

“I’m not bashing the judicial system – tha magistrates or the judges, but I do believe there are some bad calls being made,” Weatherholtz noted, adding, “I’m not going to say that it’s (the system) working well.” 

“We have one magistrate in one county we were tracking, 29 bonds in a row were cash-only,” Weatherholtz continued. “The majority of them were non-violent traffic citations.”

Fast directed his next question to Magistrate Mendez, asking, “Do you see a breakdown in our system the way it is right now? Are we putting a lot of non-violent people – just stacking them up in jail prior to trial?”

While clarifying that he can only speak for himself, Mendez said that most non-violent offenders are released on personal recognizance (PR), meaning there is no bail requirement. However, repeat-offenders and other similar circumstances will impact a magistrate’s decision. 

Sen. Jack David Woodrum, R-Summers, posed the next question to Tyler County Prosecutor Luke Furbee.

“Is there a better way of doing what we’re doing right now?” Woodrum asked.

Furbee, who also serves as president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said, “We would like to see more emphasis on electronic monitoring, court supervision. We think these things are effective. When folks have someone to report in to, it tends to encourage them to show up for court.”

Woodrum then turned his attention to Public Defender Ronni Sheets, asking if she believes that inconsistencies with bail practices from one county to the next creates a problem. 

“I do think that the amount of time someone spends incarcerated pre-trial should not depend on where they live geographically in West Virginia,” Sheets said. 

Committee Chair Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler, then questioned Kanawha County Circuit Judge Maryclaire Akers, asking her if every circuit makes use of bail bonding services.

“No,” Akers replied. “Historically, Kanawha County – which I can speak about – did not allow bail bondsmen for a long time. There was actually an administrative order that was entered by all seven judges at the time saying that they would not be allowed. Then the state law took effect, and now it is up to each judge if they want bail bondsmen or not.”

Kelly then asked Akers if she allows defendants to utilize bail bonds services, to which she replied, “I do not.”

“In my court and in my cases, I have not found it to be effective,” Akers said. “I’ve not found it to be something that is necessary. There’s not a time when I would say that I would never [allow] it, but it is not typically the practice in my courtroom.”

“When I am considering bail or a bond position, I will listen to both sides – the state and the defense – about why a particular defendant should be admitted to bond,” Akers continued. “There is no absolute rule. Each judge should look at each case on a case-by-case basis.”

LOCRJCFA will meet again during next month’s Interim Legislative Session, scheduled for Oct. 15 – 17.