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Bill would place harsher punishment on drug crime

Feb. 26, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

CHARLESTON -- A bill that would increase the severity in punishment for drug distribution cases concerning narcotics brought into West Virginia cleared the state Senate 33-0 with one absent Tuesday.

Senate Bill 552 now goes to the House of Delegates for consideration.

The bill would change the sentencing guidelines for those convicted of entering West Virginia from another state with the intent to deliver a Schedule I or II substance -- narcotics -- to another.

Specifically, it changes the language of sentencing to a "determinate sentence of not more than 15 years."

As it stands now, sentencing guidelines for the crime state a penalty of "not less than one year nor more than 15 years."

Under current sentencing, someone convicted of the felony offense is eligible for parole after one year.

Cabell County Prosecutor Chris Chiles explained, if SB 552 were to become law, a judge would have more discretion and could pick any number of years up to 15 at sentencing. The convicted felon would have to serve one fourth of that sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

"So if, say a judge sentences a person to eight years, they would have to serve two before they would be eligible for parole," Chiles said.

The prosecutor declined comment on his opinion of the bill, saying it would be inappropriate because he is soon to be sworn in as a Cabell Circuit judge, replacing David Pancake, who retired at the end of January.

The bill's lead sponsor is Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne.

Plymale said he introduced the bill after having discussions with Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook about the growing heroin trade in the region.

"We were going back and forth on what we should do," Plymale said. "This basically allows a judge more flexibility to go up higher on the sentencing with people who distribute."

In a drug threat assessment compiled by Holbrook for Huntington city officials, the chief noted that the HPD Special Investigations Bureau seized 5,500 grams of heroin in 2013, more than double the 2,739 seized in 2012.

SB 552 cleared the Senate a day before crossover day at the Legislature, when all bills introduced must clear their house of origin in order to be considered for full adoption to be sent to the governor.

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