Emily Allen Published

Senate Judiciary Committee Walks Back Eligibility In Restorative Justice Bill

Delegate Dianna Graves testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee about her bill for restorative justice programs.

A bill expanding who is allowed to participate in the state’s juvenile restorative justice program passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday — but not without an amendment, scaling back that eligibility.

In restorative justice programs, participants who have committed a crime meet with their victims, and they address the crime in a safe, mediated environment.

In West Virginia, if a juvenile is referred to and successfully completes a restorative justice program, the state will drop all related criminal charges against that juvenile.

Current state law only allows juveniles facing nonviolent misdemeanors to participate. While the House of Delegates voted unanimously in February to open up the program to all juveniles under House Bill 2094, regardless of their charges, the Senate Judiciary committee voted Monday to step back and extend the program to juveniles facing misdemeanor charges of battery or assault, leaving out violent felonies.

“I see the symmetry that it can bring together, the victim and the perpetrator, and it might drive something home to a kid that the system itself can’t,” said Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell. “You just haven’t really sold me on the fact that we shouldn’t have adjudications on violent felonies.”

Woelfel, a Huntington-area attorney who has worked with victims of violent crimes, was the one who proposed keeping the new violent misdemeanors instead of nixing violent crimes altogether, which the committee was prepared to do.

But, Woelfel said Monday he wasn’t comfortable offering juveniles facing harsher crimes a route to avoid adjudication.

“Doesn’t society have a right for someone who committed a dangerous felony to have some punishment?” Woelfel said.

Del. Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha and the bill’s lead sponsor, said she initially included all crimes in the bill because nationally, other programs have demonstrated that the harsher the sentence, the more effective the program.

That, and no matter what the crime is, the entire process is contingent upon the victim’s desire to participate. Graves said Monday the Senate committee’s changes might take away a victim’s option to safely confront someone who has harmed them.

“When I first introduced this, the version that I had two years ago excluded violent crimes, because, quite frankly, it made me uneasy,” Graves said. “But as I continued researching it, and speaking to experts, what I came to understand was, the victims want this opportunity to confront.”

Kenneth Lang, a criminal justice professor at Glenville State College and a retired homicide detective, agreed Monday with the benefits of restorative justice programs to victims.

“It causes the offender to realize, to address questions about what happened, why it happened,” Lang told senators. “And, what needs to be done to correct, or to right, that wrong.”

Restorative justice isn’t always used as a diversionary tool, Lang said. In other states dealing with adults in the criminal justice system, the process happens after someone is convicted for their crimes.

While working on House Bill 2094, Graves told senators that she researched a juvenile restorative justice program in Colorado.

A third-party review of Colorado’s program found that of the roughly 1,200 juveniles who completed the restorative justice program, roughly 90 percent stayed out of the juvenile justice system for at least a year after finishing.

More than two thirds of the victims who participated were directly affected by a juvenile’s crime. Others were “surrogate victims,” who either witnessed the crime in question or have been impacted by a similar crime.

In West Virginia, the state Department of Health and Human Resources provides funding to two restorative programs — the National Youth Advocate program, which serves 12 counties, and the Juvenile Mediation Program, which works with juveniles in the northern panhandle.

While proponents for House Bill 2094 advocate for opening a restorative justice program in more counties, the bill offers the state no additional funding.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.