Lawsuit seeks to release several convicted of violent crimes due to COVID-19 concerns

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WOWK) – A group including County officials, law enforcement and emergency responders have publically joined together to oppose a move to release several convicted sex offenders, a convicted domestic batterer and other convicted felons.

The U.S. District Court hearing was requested by Mountain State Justice. It represents a group of offenders, including several convicted of sexual and other violent crimes, in a lawsuit it hopes becomes a class-action over medical services and conditions in West Virginia’s regional jails.

Wood County Sheriff Steve Stephens, president of the West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, says he opposes the release because “crime continues to flourish in some locations where the criminal element has seen emergency orders of the state as a signal that our laws are suspended and they may commit any act they see fit.”

Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango says law enforcement is already working to keep the public safe during this pandemic.

“We need to support our prosecuting attorneys, the sheriff’s office and all first responders during this pandemic,” he says. “A release of prisoners convicted of serious or violent crimes, regardless of the current circumstances, is not a good plan.”

“We have heard loud and clear from the Prosecuting Attorney that the efforts to allow a mass release of prisoners, including any plan that could potentially allow the release of convicted murders or sex offenders, raises several legal issues and would prove to be very dangerous to the public,” Commission President Kent Carper added.

Though this lawsuit was filed in 2018, the West Virginia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation argued in its court filings the lawyers have sought to “bootstrap” allegations arising from the COVID-19 crisis into the case and target both the jails and state prisons.

“In addition, Plaintiffs’ motion is based upon the false premise that WVDCR currently does not have an adequate plan in effect to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic,” one filing said. “Plaintiffs are well-aware of the fact that WVDCR already has a plan in effect to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Those seeking the release say they will call several inmates as witnesses Monday.

According to the West Virginia Office of the Secretary of Military Affairs and Public Safety, who also opposes the measure, those planned witnesses include a Northern Regional Jail inmate accused of violating his supervised release for possessing child pornography in Hancock County, and a Potomac Highlands Regional Jail inmate convicted of strangulation in a Wood County domestic violence case.

Other named plaintiffs in the case include three convicted sex offenders jailed for failing to register as such, including one required to register as a lifetime sex offender.

WVDCR officials say the evidence will show that inmates see and appreciate its COVID-19 precautions and preparations.

“These measures include additional hygiene and cleaning products, increased monitoring of inmate health, heightened health screenings when inmates first enter a jail, and suspension of medical copays for sick call visits,” WVDCR officials say.

The lawsuit and pending motion also conflict with ongoing, measured steps taken by WVDCR to balance public health and public safety concerns. These steps include extending furloughs for already-eligible work-release inmates and releasing parolees who were temporarily jailed for technical violations if they have approved home plans. The Supreme Court, in consultation with WVDCR, has also asked that county prosecutors identify pretrial defendants suitable for personal recognizance or reduced bonds.

“WVDCR and the state Parole Board review each case individually and weigh the severity of the crime involved,” added Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy. “They also review each inmate’s degree of rehabilitation. West Virginia has a high success rate with released inmates not violating the law again. For public safety’s sake, we must continue that trend by using sound judgment before deciding to release inmates.”

The West Virginia Emergency Management Council is similarly “very much opposed” to such an action, it said in a Saturday statement.

“With the current uneasiness the pandemic has brought to each county, such an early release would only add to the apprehension,” WVEMC President Dean Meadows said. “This action could cause victim anxiety, public distrust and could very well negate the confidence that West Virginians have placed in their state and local governments, making the job of our law enforcement even more burdensome.”

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