By LACIE PIERSON
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For the third time in a week, the West Virginia House of Delegates approved a measure that increases jail penalties for people convicted of drug-related crimes.
House Bill 2579 would increase the recommended jail time for people convicted of bringing controlled substances into the state and creates a separate recommendation for those convictions when marijuana is involved.
The bill was approved by a margin of 88-10, with two delegates not voting.
The bill will advance to the Senate for its consideration.
If signed into law, HB 2579 would establish a recommended sentence of between 10 and 30 years of jail time for anyone convicted of transporting with the intent to deliver or manufacture Schedule I and Schedule II narcotics, such as heroin, into the Mountain State. The law would not affect the financial penalty, which would remain at $25,000.
If someone is convicted of the same crime involving Schedule I, II or III non-narcotics, such as LSD or ecstasy, as defined by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, they would face between five and 15 years in jail and a $15,000 fine.
The law would make an exception for those crimes when marijuana is involved.
A person convicted of transporting marijuana, which the DEA classifies as a Schedule I narcotic, would face between one and five years in jail and up to $15,000 in fines.
The bill was the topic of an emotional debate Tuesday morning, with its supporters saying it would be a deterrent for drug traffickers from out of state. Supporters also said it would give prosecutors better ability to pursue convictions against drug traffickers if and when federal prosecutors do not pursue convictions.
Those arguing against the bill said the state could not afford to incarcerate more people, saying that drug control policies through incarceration would lead to the need for a new jail or revenue increases in the coming years. They also argued that the House was focusing too much on incarcerating people for drug crimes instead of putting more state resources toward substance abuse treatment and prevention.
Hornbuckle said he was voting against the bill because he felt the bill would do nothing to end the cycle of crime and incarceration for nonviolent offenders and because it didn’t target what he said were other significant drug traffickers in the state: pharmaceutical companies.
Hornbuckle called for compromise through strengthening law enforcement at the local level through community policing and genuine second chances at employment for nonviolent offenders.
“Let’s work together on solving the whole issue with law enforcement, treatment, prevention and putting people back to work,” Hornbuckle said.
Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, who supported the measure, said that for someone to say the bill, if passed into law, wouldn’t work, was akin to saying the state’s legal system didn’t work.
“For those horror stories to be true, you have to have no faith in our judicial system,” Rohrbach said. “You have to not have trust in our prosecutors, who are elected officials; not trust our judges, who are elected officials; not trust our supreme court, who are elected officials. I tend to have faith in those people.”
Del. Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, also voted in favor of the measure, saying the cost to the taxpayer to care for people who are suffering from substance abuse was a more concerning cost for her.
Sobonya said she has talked with members of law enforcement in Cabell County.
“They said, ‘We need help. We are arresting the same people over and over,'” Sobonya said. “Help is on the way. We can either stand on the side of drug traffickers who try to bring drugs into our state, or we can stand on the side of West Virginia families.”
In other action Tuesday, the House approved a bill that would streamline existing state law to create criminal offense for organized retail crime.
The measure passed the House 93-4 with all of Cabell and Wayne counties’ representatives voting in favor of it.
If signed into law, the bill would establish misdemeanor and felony crimes for organized retail crimes, depending on the value of the merchandise.
Anyone convicted of participating in the crime when the property involved is worth $2,500 or less would be charged with a misdemeanor crime and face up to one year in jail and a $3,000 fine.
A person convicted of the crime involving between $2,500 and $10,000 in merchandise would be charged with a felony and face between one and five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
If the crime involves more than $10,000 in merchandise, those convicted would face three to 15 years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
When asked how pawn shops factored into the crime, Hanshaw said it would depend on the pawn shop owners’ and employees’ knowledge of whether the merchandise being pawned at their store was stolen.
If pawn shop owners or employees knew the merchandise was obtained via theft, they could be held liable under the law.
“There is a knowing component to this crime,” Hanshaw said. “It’s a high bar to prove.”
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