Progress Made, More Needed in Criminal Justice Reform

As the nation questions the purpose of the American justice system — to punish or to rehabilitate — West Virginia emerged from the shadows to join the conversation during the 2019 legislative session.

The extreme challenges people face after leaving prison can significantly limit their ability to successfully reintegrate back into communities — from access to sustainable employment to basic necessities like food. A lack of resources becomes a particularly large barrier for women, as they often become the primary caretakers of their children upon leaving prison.

According to The Sentencing Project, our state is the 29th highest when it comes to mass incarceration, with 372 of every 100,0000 people behind bars. While it may fall just slightly below statistics for the entirety of America, West Virginia’s incarceration rate is still significantly higher than countries like the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada.

The cost burden associated with incarceration is making a dent in West Virginia’s budget for spending. In 2017, West Virginia spent $191 million of its general fund on corrections. This figure counted for 4.5 percent of the state’s total general fund spending. Additionally, between 1986 and 2017, the state has seen a 307 percent increase in corrections spending, forcing tradeoffs in other areas including education, which has seen a 14 percent decrease over the same time period.

National efforts towards criminal justice reform (like the First Step Act) are igniting waves of change in state legislatures across America. Here in the Mountain state, the 2019 legislative session proposed and passed several bills to improve reentry experiences for formerly incarcerated people, and improve the communities they’re entering into.

West Virginia officials have acknowledged the need for criminal justice reform with the Expungement Bill (SB 152), the Easy I.D. Bill (HB 2083) and the SNAP bill (HB 2459), and, while all of these bills are providing valuable resources to formerly incarcerated people, they aren’t enough.

For example, before the introduction of the SNAP bill, West Virginia was one of only three remaining states that continued the lifetime ban on SNAP benefits imposed by provisions in the Welfare Act of 1996.

House Bill 2459 ended the lifetime ban on SNAP benefits for non-violent drug offenders. This bill has been passed by both the House and Senate as well as approved by the governor.

Senate Bill 152 defines who is eligible to get their non-violent records expunged and what the time frame looks like for when that can occur. This bill has been passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by the governor.

House Bill 2083 provides a government-recognizable I.D. to non-violent offenders upon leaving prison, valid for 90 days. This bill as well has passed both the House and Senate and was approved by the governor.

Today, we applaud the legislature for its compassionate, common sense approach to reform, but it’s imperative we do not rest on these bills alone.

While West Virginia has seen progress for formerly incarcerated people in this legislative session, there is more that can be done with continued efforts and support. Because of the legislature’s recognition of the need for criminal justice reform, more issues can be introduced and discussed for review including reducing minimum sentences, reforming bail, reducing youth in the juvenile justice system, etc.

Improvements for formerly incarcerated people mean improvement for communities all over our state. From employment to housing, child care and beyond, previously incarcerated women and their communities can benefit from legislative changes. Among poor women offenders, we find providing state-sponsored support to address short-term needs (e.g., housing) reduces the odds of recidivism by 83 percent.

While conversations surrounding these reforms have skyrocketed in recent months, they are nowhere near finished. With West Virginia’s prison population only expected to increase in the coming years, these conversations will only hold more and more important in the coming months and years.

To help to continue these conversations, you can create a video to thank your elected official for their dedication to the greater good of West Virginia. In your video, you can include why you’re thankful for their work as well as why the specific legislation is important to you. Emails can be submitted to WVCriminalJusticeReform@gmail.com.

Amy Jo Hutchison is an organizer for Our Children Our Future, striving to make West Virginia the best place to live, work, and raise a family — no matter who you are. She resides in Wheeling.

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