A new West Virginia law requires magistrates and judges to set a hearing within five days for people who’ve been arrested for not showing up to a court hearing, not paying fines on time, or not following civil-court rulings.
The reform comes at a time when jails across the Mountain State are overflowing. According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, one in eight people goes to jail because of a bench warrant.
Sara Whitaker, a criminal legal policy analyst with the Center, said the state’s track record for keeping jails safe amid overcrowding is dismal.
“Over the last decade, West Virginia jails were the deadliest in the country,” said Whitaker. “Then last year, in 2022, 12 people died in one regional jail alone.”
New data show the number of West Virginians brought to jail on a bench-warrant arrest increased from nearly 2,000 people in 2012 to nearly 5,000 a decade later.
Whitaker pointed out that bench warrants, also known as capias arrests, are contributing to the stressful conditions that have made it tough to attract and retain jail workers.
Last summer, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice declared a statewide staffing emergency – and brought 300 National Guard personnel to work in jails.
“These capiases,” said Whitaker, “are contributing to the overcrowding in regional jails that make it so difficult to attract people who want to work inside of these facilities.”
There are currently more than 1,000 vacancies within the state’s Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation system.