Blog Posts > Introducing Court Watch
May 22, 2024

Introducing Court Watch

Over the last two years, West Virginians have learned about horrifying conditions inside our state jails and prisons. Thanks to the courage and diligence of people closest to these problems, we have seen past the walls. Residents served rotten or undercooked food. Cells with “broken toilets, busted windows, no hot water, exposed electrical wires and lights that didn’t work.” Physical and sexual assaults against residents, and even death at the hands of jail employees.

These institutions have been proven unable to keep people safe. They also inflict immeasurable harm upon those who live and work in them.

And while the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) does oversee the wellbeing of those inside West Virginia jails and prisons, the agency has limited ability to reduce the number of people behind bars. The real power to decide who ends up in a jail or prison cell belongs to prosecutors, magistrates, and judges.

In 2023, magistrates and judges in West Virginia ordered 37,184 admissions to state jails, ensuring that our jail system remained overcrowded, with hundreds of people assigned to sleep on the floor. In the same year, judges sentenced 1,663 people to prison, despite the fact that on any given day, there was a jail backlog of more than 500 people waiting for a prison bed to open up. In April 2024, the state’s 10 regional jails housed 4,639 people in facilities originally designed to house 2,883.

This overincarceration was not inevitable. Over the last decade, rates of property offenses and violent offenses declined in the Mountain State while the overall state population dropped by more than 82,000 people.

But with an ever-expanding criminal code at their disposal, prosecutors last year pursued 128,474 criminal charges in magistrate courts and 11,217 criminal charges in circuit courts. This number does not include the criminal charges filed in city courts throughout the state.

Unlike those running state jails and prisons, prosecutors, magistrates, and judges are all elected. Yet most West Virginians could not name their local prosecutor or circuit court judge.

Injustice happens every day in empty courtrooms. These elected officials control relationships: directing spouses to live apart; selecting the place and people a child will call home; deciding to end a person’s legal rights to their own child.

They control citizenship: making it harder to rent housing; ending a person’s ability to serve on a jury, carry a gun, or vote; keeping a person from dozens of jobs and professional licenses.

They control bodies: ordering people to urinate in front of a court officer to screen for alcohol and drugs; requiring people to move into a treatment program for weeks or months at a time; sending people into jails and prisons notorious for high rates of preventable deaths.

Through data and stories, the WVCBP’s new Court Watch series will bring West Virginians into courts across the state to pose this question: Is this the system we would want if someone we loved were charged with a crime?

If you have a courthouse story to share, or you would like to learn more about how to start a formal Court Watch program in your county, contact WVCBP’s criminal legal policy analyst, Sara Whitaker:

Closeup of gavel in court room

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