Emily Allen Published

W.Va. Lawmakers, Advocates Talk Criminal Justice Reform Ahead Of Session

Capitol, West Virginia State Capitol

Over the last few years, members of the West Virginia Legislature have passed a handful of laws aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

But no one could’ve anticipated the toll that the coronavirus pandemic would have until lawmakers were just adjourning in March 2020. The devastation has not missed state-run correctional facilities, where data shows that more than 3,500 incarcerated people and staff have been infected at one point or another since March.

This year, advocates aren’t only planning to advance the work they’ve accomplished so far, they’re also looking at bills under a new, public health-related light.

“I think everybody realizes that simply incarcerating folks we’re mad at doesn’t always work,” said House Judiciary Chair Moore Capito. “We’ve really tried to make an effort to distinguish how we treat those that we’re mad at versus those that we’re afraid of.”

Jails Still Overcrowded Despite 2020 Bail Reform

Recent efforts include an expungement act in 2019, which paved the way for the governor’s Jobs and Hope program, an effort to connect people in recovery from substance use disorder to job training.

Lawmakers most recently passed a law for bail reform, which tasks magistrates with issuing non-cash bail requirements to people arrested for nonviolent charges. This law also outlines ways that magistrates and county prosecutors can avoid imposing unreasonable bail requirements.

But jail populations are even higher today than they were toward the end of the last legislative session, even after the bail reform law took effect in June.

More than 5,700 people are incarcerated in West Virginia jails, against a system-wide capacity of 4,265 beds.

A little more than 40 percent of the people occupying West Virginia jails Tuesday were still awaiting trial on charges from the state. Sixteen percent of this pre-trial population includes people being held for misdemeanor charges.

Another 261 people were being held pretrial on federal charges.

There was a roughly 2,000-person backlog on Tuesday, of people who have been convicted and are still in jail, waiting to be sent to prison.

Capito says lawmakers are looking at unresolved issues related to the bail reform law, but no updates have been written yet. Some advocates, outside the Legislature, think new data collection laws are key to improved enforcement.

“What we’re hearing is that many magistrates aren’t holding that three-day hearing,” said Quenton King, a policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and member of the state Criminal Law Reform Coalition. “We want to see, you know, who is not doing that? And what are the results of those where this is happening?”

Health, Wellness In Correctional Facilities

The problem of jail overcrowding has been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, where too many people means not enough room for social distancing and fewer resources for preventing disease spread. Guidance from the CDC advises courts and local law enforcement agencies to use alternatives to incarceration.

To prevent introducing the virus into some jails and prisons, facilities are no longer offering in-person visitations, which can lead to isolation.

Del. Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, says poor mental health care is an issue he sees compounding problems in correctional facilities.

“I would definitely bet that there will be more legislation put forward to try to reform our system right now, to bring it more into line with the 21st century, more in line with modern practices regarding mental health and rehabilitation,” Thompson said.

He plans to introduce bills for trauma-informed training, and for increasing medical access to incarcerated people. An investigation by Reuters found in December that of the 110 people who died in West Virginia regional jails from 2009 to 2019, a quarter were suicides; more than a third were other medical conditions.

Most recently, a report by the West Virginia ACLU, using data from Reuters, found that just eight percent of those deaths were people convicted of charges. A quarter of the deaths were people who were in custody for unknown reasons. More than half died within their first month of incarceration.

“A death sentence is illegal in the state of West Virginia,” said Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, who is working on legislation with Thompson. “But because certain policies are not in place, we have had many people die on our watch.”

Walker herself is planning to introduce several more criminal justice reform bills, dealing with data collection and support for families whose loved ones have died behind bars.

Hope For Action In Transitional Housing

Pastor Beverly Sharp, a former corrections employee and member of the Criminal Law Reform Coalition, is hoping lawmakers also will focus on a need for transitional housing, which can serve as a supervised step for people toward the end of their sentences.

“It’s kind of like you have one foot inside jail or prison and one foot in the community,” Sharp said. “So you’re still supervised, you’re still held accountable, but you also have access to people that will help you navigate with, how do you apply for a job? How do you fill out a resume? How do you transfer skills that you learned while you were incarcerated to an application for employment?”

In West Virginia, Sharp said few options exist for re-entry programs, beyond those dealing with substance use disorder and treatment.

Immediately connecting people coming out of incarceration with resources to help with employment, licensing and new technology, she added, can help reduce the odds that people will return to jail.

Something that Sharp says won’t help? Creating any legislation that would increase penalties.

“We already have a system that is in disrepair, that is overcrowded, that’s not able to handle the number of people that are currently incarcerated,” Sharp said.

One of the House Judiciary Committee’s top priorities in criminal justice reform this year is revamping sentencing laws. According to House Judiciary chair Capito, an interim committee has been meeting over the summer to draft a new bill.

Lawmakers officially gavel in the new session Wednesday at noon. So far, leadership plans to meet for all 60 days, but Republicans have shared what they say is an ambitious agenda of priorities for the first few weeks, in case their work is cut short.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.