CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A panel of Charleston officials was split in their decision to advance an ordinance that would eliminate jail time for first-time offenders of four prostitution-related offenses.
The bill is also retroactive to apply to all "pending, but not yet finally adjudicated charges," something with which the two dissenters -- at-large Councilman Chris Dodrill and South Hills Councilman Courtney Persinger, both Republicans -- took issue.
"I'm having a lot of trouble getting behind the retroactive part at the end (of the ordinance)," Dodrill said.
The vote Monday night by members of the Ordinance and Rules Committee was 6-to-2.
Those in favor were South Hills Councilmen Jack Harrison and Mike Clowser, West Side Councilmen Bob White and Joe Doneault, all Democrats; and at-large Councilman Tom Lane and Kanawha City's Rick Burka, both Republicans.
The retroactive nature of the bill means it would affect the case of Phil Reale, a prominent West Virginia lobbyist, whose name was left off a list of people arrested during a July prostitution sting on the West Side. The charges against Reale were dropped with prejudice on Aug. 13, meaning the case could be brought to municipal court again.
After the Daily Mail broke the story last month, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said he wanted the charges to be re-filed, but that he didn't think jail time was appropriate for anyone convicted of certain first-offense prostitution crimes.
Therefore, as written, the ordinance would eliminate jail time for Reale and any others currently facing charges under four specific prostitution crimes.
The charges are engaging in prostitution, entry to a house of prostitution, enticing for prostitution and loitering for prostitution.
Penalties related to keeping houses of prostitution; harboring or permitting entrance to persons under 18 to a house of prostitution; and use of premises for prostitution would not change.
Jones was at the meeting, and said he is aware of the timing of the ordinance, but that it was meant to save the city money, not give preferential treatment to anyone.
He said the change would allow the city to avoid paying for defendants' attorneys and having to convene a jury for its municipal court. He said the city hasn't sentenced anyone to jail for a first-time offense in years, and city code should reflect that precedent.
"In the last 40 years, there has never been a case of anybody going to jail," he said.
Jones said he also wants the city to examine its code to identify other offenses for which jail time is a possible punishment, but has never been used.
City Attorney Paul Ellis said convening a jury is costly partly because the city must convene a 12-member jury consisting of city residents.
"It's a hassle," he said.
In the nine years he's worked for the city, Ellis said he could only remember one jury trial in municipal court.
"It's consistent with the practice of the city and the court for a long time," he said of eliminating jail time.