MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The primary sponsor for the legislation that’s now being interpreted as a law that guarantees criminals, convicted as juveniles in West Virginia, a parole hearing after 15 years behind bars says making the law retroactive was not part of the legislative discussions.
“We never talked about that and there’s nothing in the bill about it,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer (D-Monongalia, 51). On Thursday’s MetroNews “Talkline,” Fleischauer was asked if the law should be applied to past cases. “I’m not sure of the answer because I haven’t read those nine cases,” she said.
Whatever the intent, the law — which took effect earlier this year following approval from lawmakers during the 2014 Regular Legislative Session — has triggered the scheduling of parole hearings for more than half a dozen people who had been convicted of violent crimes as juveniles and were sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.
Prosecuting attorneys and other officials, throughout West Virginia, have cried foul.
Fleischauer said there is language in state code that says laws cannot be applied retroactively unless that is written specifically into the language of the law.
“That code section, it’s mandatory unless there’s some other overriding issue like the Constitution so, it says to me, that’s our general rule — a statute is presumed to be prospective unless expressly made retrospective,” she said. “We didn’t do that here.”
Courts have had different interpretations, though.
Fleischauer said she is willing to listen to concerns about the law, but noted its intent is not to automatically release violent criminals who were sentenced as kids.
“This bill does not allow anyone to get out of jail. Period. It just permits the parole board to consider whether children who committed serious crimes should have the opportunity for a parole hearing,” Fleischauer said.
The law change was designed to bring West Virginia in line with several court rulings, including one from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 that found mandatory life sentences, with no chances of getting out, are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders based on the Eighth Amendment which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.
Critics of the law have argued West Virginia already has no mandatory life sentences because punishments, including the question of parole, are left up to the judges and juries who consider the specifics of each case.