February 10 marks the beginning of West Virginia’s 85th Legislature, and with this session lawmakers will have the opportunity to build upon their 2020 criminal justice reform efforts.
The following are the criminal justice priorities for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
Evidence is clear that correctional facilities are hotspots for COVID-19, with incarcerated people contracting the disease at a rate four times higher than the general population. What’s more, incarcerated people are more likely to have chronic health conditions that put them at heightened risk of dying from COVID-19 complications.
As of January 19th, there have been more than 3,100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people and staff, six confirmed COVID-19 deaths, and 11 deaths pending further investigation. Despite this reality, regional jails continue to operate more than 30 percent over capacity. A sizable number of people in prisons could be released early if their parole or home plans were approved.
The legislature should move quickly to work with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations and other stakeholders to reduce jail and prison populations and prevent further needless COVID-19 deaths. This should include ensuring that the 2020 pretrial release bill is implemented more effectively, reducing the backlog of people in regional jails who should be in prisons, and working closely with local groups to find ways to release people from prison who are within a year of completing their sentence or are unlikely to reoffend. Further, incarcerated people should be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Excessive and mandatory minimum sentences have been significant drivers of mass incarceration in the United States, and a 2010 report to the West Virginia Legislature revealed that the state imposes some of the longest prison sentences in the country. Mass incarceration heavily strains state and local budgets and has high social costs as well. Updating criminal codes to end mandatory minimums would eliminate the prosecutorial incentive to upcharge offenses and allow judges more discretion to impose alternative sentences.
The most recent data shows that the parole board grants parole to just 40 percent of people who are eligible. We support legislation to require regular reporting from the parole board on parole decisions, including numbers of deferrals, denials, and approvals. In the cases where the parole board defers decisions and keeps a person incarcerated, we support legislation to require a parole hearing set for a minimum of one year later, as well as an explanation for deferral or denial.
As racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system have received national attention over the last year, there is both increased demand and increased opportunity for reforming the system to be more equitable and to improve public safety outcomes. But you can’t manage what you can’t measure. In West Virginia, criminal justice data is decentralized and not easily accessible for analysis. Creating a centralized and accessible repository for certain data points can improve fairness in our justice system, enhance public safety, and increase transparency and accountability in governance.
Better data collection would inform decision-makers and the public and guide public policy. A robust criminal justice data collection and transparency system should comprise data from local and state police agencies, public defenders’ offices, prosecutors’ offices, corrections authorities, probation services, and county clerks and magistrates. The state should appropriate funds to create an accessible database, to which the agencies would submit the requested data.
Between 1990 and 2019, the number of women incarcerated in West Virginia increased 11-fold, the third highest such increase in the nation. The dramatic rise in female incarceration has far-reaching consequences, from disrupting families and perpetuating poverty in the Mountain State, to exposing women to harsh conditions and violence in correctional facilities.
Policymakers must take steps to address mass incarceration in the state, and specifically that of women. This includes eliminating the felony murder rule as other states have done, finding alternatives to incarcerating pregnant women, and supporting treatment alternatives for women who are addicted to substances.
For people with a criminal conviction, especially those who are poor, obtaining housing and employment upon release are major barriers to becoming productive taxpayers and providers for their families. We support the reduction and eventual elimination of the fines and fees billed to individuals when they are charged and/or convicted of a crime, as these debts further undercut individuals’ ability to rejoin society and find stability after their interaction with the criminal justice system. To reach these goals, we specifically support:
With the national spotlight on the need for criminal justice reform, now is the time for the Legislature to take steps to address the consequences of mass incarceration in West Virginia.
We have a great newsletter, join below: