WSAZ Investigates: Released too soon?

Published: Aug. 6, 2018 at 6:46 PM EDT
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A woman survived a brutal attack. Now, she's worried a new law with good intentions may actually put you in danger, and she's not the only one.

"He had me pinned on the floor just beating, trying to beat me to death."

Almost every inmate serving time in West Virginia now has the chance to do half the jail time they would have before. We're talking about people serving time for misdemeanor charges for crimes including domestic violence.

A new law passed under the radar and it just went into effect last month.

"I still have nightmares, horrible nightmares."

It's been seven years since Joyce Richmond's now ex-husband nearly killed her.

"June 5th 2011," she said. "I'll never forget that day. Never. It's burned into my mind."

In the middle of their divorce, she says he snapped. "He told me he was going to kill me. He said, 'I will kill you.' "

He choked, kicked, punched, even hit with lead pipes. For part of the attack, Joyce was holding her infant granddaughter.

She says she took a 2 1/2 hour beating. Blood sprayed 8 feet up the walls.

"He used a box cutter on our 4-month-old granddaughter," she said.

In West Virginia, domestic battery and assault are both misdemeanor crimes. They're punishable by no more than a year in jail.

Under a new law, passed quietly, most misdemeanor sentences will essentially be cut in half.

"They should change the law," Joyce said. "It's not fair to the survivors."

Lawrence Messina, communications director for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (DMAPS), explained how it works.

"Everyday you behave yourself behind bars, you get another day taken off," Messina said.

So an inmate sentenced to one year will only serve six months for simply following the rules. Messina says the reasoning behind the new law is consistency within the state department's own policies.

"The overarching issue is uniformity," Messina said.

Putnam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Sorsaia said the law has dangerous potential.

"We have people that we're really concerned about," Sorsaia said. "We're worried about what they could do next."

He said that is especially true for violent offenders. Sorsaia said shorter sentences are a bad idea for repeat offenders, especially because of all of the criminals he sees in Putnam County. He estimates 70 percent are drug-addicted.

In Joyce's case, her abuser was charged with domestic assault and child abuse. He took a plea deal and spent several years behind bars before dying of an illness.

"All I felt was relief," she said. "It was just a huge relief."

West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a Jackson County Republican, released the following statement:

"The bill that reorganized the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (HB 4338) was introduced at the request of the Governor and Cabinet Secretary Jeff Sandy to consolidate and reorganize divisions under the Department into a single Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. While this bill made changes as it relates to correctional facility management, it in no way did anything to change or weaken the sections of West Virginia Code that pertain to the crimes or penalties associated with the misdemeanor charges of domestic battery or assault. In no way do these changes affect a prosecutor’s decision on whether to pursue criminal charges against an offender, or a court’s ability to sentence convicted offenders for crimes of violence, including those that are domestic in nature. The changes made by this bill relate to specific policies that are set solely by the Division of Corrections, including those that relate to the calculation of ‘good time’ for inmates. The standards by which the Division of Corrections determines 'good time' remain fully under its purview; therefore, only that Division would be qualified to speak to why it was determined that changes to 'good time' calculations were necessary to include in the bill that was presented to the Legislature. We would encourage any member of the law enforcement community or prosecuting attorney who has concerns about these changes to address them with the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety or the Division of Corrections so that they can evaluate their policies and procedures for 'good time' calculations as they apply to sentenced offenders in their custody and control."

There are several resources if you or someone you know needs help:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233.

The number for the YWCA Resolve Family Abuse Program covering Kanawha, Clay and Boone counties is 304-340-3649.

For branches covering Cabell, Putnam, Wayne, Lincoln and Mason counties, call 304-529-2382.

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