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Charleston council approves controversial prostitution ordinance

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After Mayor Danny Jones made a fervent speech supporting the bill, Charleston City Council members voted 20-5 to pass a controversial ordinance that eliminates jail time for first-time offenders of some prostitution-related offenses.

However, the controversial section of the ordinance -- a clause that makes the bill retroactive to apply to all pending cases -- didn't sit well with some council members, resulting in the five "no" votes.

Republicans Courtney Persinger (South Hills) and Chris Dodrill (at-large); Democrats Jerry Ware (at-large) and Robert Sheets (downtown); and East End Independent Cubert Smith were the "no" votes. West Side Democrat Rev. James Ealy and Mountain Party at-large Kasey Russell were absent.

All other council members voted in favor.

Jones repeated statements he made in recent weeks about the bill, including that the ordinance would save the city money by avoiding a potentially costly jury trial and that because the city's municipal court is not a court of record, the offenses wouldn't be listed in national crime databases. He said previously that no one has been sentenced to jail for a first-time prostitution offense in 40 years.

In addition, Jones said he had been thinking about revising city ordinances to eliminate jail time for some offenses for some time. However, the recent high-profile arrest of lobbyist Phil Reale during a July prostitution sting indeed served as the impetus for changing the law.

"Did this serve as a catalyst?" he said to council of the case. "You bet it did."

Jones said currently, 28 people have first-time prostitution charges pending in municipal court.

After the July prostitution sting, Reale's name was left off a press release that listed names of those arrested during the sting. The charges were dropped with prejudice in August, meaning they could be re-filed again.

In October, the Daily Mail published a story about the incident, and Jones said in a press conference the day the story ran that he didn't think anyone should go to jail for some prostitution-related offenses but also that he wanted charges against Reale to be re-filed.

Jones said Monday night the city hasn't yet re-filed those charges. He said Reale distributed two different letters -- one to City Attorney Paul Ellis and one to his clients, the latter of which says he is not guilty.

In light of that, Jones said if Reale can "rectify" those two letters, he will ask Ellis to drop the case. If Reale doesn't admit to his clients he's guilty, Jones wants the charges filed again.

Jones has previously said the city has convincing evidence Reale is guilty.

Regardless, the five council members who voted against the ordinance said they couldn't vote for the bill with the retroactive clause.

"If (Reale's case) had not been brought to light, we would not be doing this right now," Ware said.

Persinger, who voted "no" when the bill was in the Ordinance & Rules Committee, said he would favor the bill without the retroactive clause, and said he would support an amendment doing so. However, he did not have an amendment in writing, which Jones said was necessary to change the ordinance.

Dodrill, the other "no" vote when the ordinance was in committee, said he has heard opposition from the public.

"It sits wrong with my constituents," he said.

He also said he thinks jail time should be kept for all prostitution offenses.

"There's a real human trafficking element to prostitution," he said.

South Hills Councilman Jack Harrison, a Democrat, and at-large Councilman Tom Lane, a Republican, both spoke in favor of the bill.

"This ordinance reflects what reality is," Harrison said, going on to say, "This is not special interest legislation."

Lane echoed Harrison.

"If it's not appropriate to have a 30-day jail term, it ought to apply frontwards and backwards," he said. "It's hard to avoid the suggestion we're trying to favor someone, which is not the purpose here."

The charges for which jail time is now no longer a possibility on the first offense are: engaging in prostitution, entry to a house of prostitution, enticing for prostitution and loitering for prostitution. The up to $500 fine is still in place.

Jail time remains for keeping houses of prostitution; harboring or permitting entrance to persons under 18 to a house of prostitution; and use of premises for prostitution.

In other business, council:

* Approved ordinances that respectively close part of Twilight Drive and vacate part of the right-of-way on 33rd Street.

* Approved the purchase of a new police cruiser to replace one that was destroyed during a DUI-related crash on Interstate 64 in September. The driver's insurance will pay for at least part of the damage.

* Heard from Kanawha County Solid Waste Authority Director James Young about ongoing recycling initiatives in the county.

Contact writer Matt Murphy at or 304-348-4817. Follow him on Twitter @DMLocalGov.


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