During the 2023 regular legislative session, West Virginia lawmakers introduced more than 300 bills related to the criminal legal system. Nearly half of those bills created new criminal offenses or increased penalties for existing crimes.
To a Hammer, Every Problem is a Nail
One trend that emerged was lawmakers’ penchant for believing that the criminal system can solve just about any social problem. Many bills relied on the threat of incarceration, despite evidence that increasing punishment does little to deter crime or incentivize positive behavior. Fortunately, the prospect of more (costly) incarceration stopped many of these bills from advancing.
The Revolving Door Keeps Spinning
Last year, formerly incarcerated people told Race Matters and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy what they needed to succeed when they returned home. We wish lawmakers had listened.
Two out of three people surveyed cited housing as their top concern when they left prison. Finding a place to live is critical, but most people leave prison with less than $250 in their account. Unfortunately, lawmakers made no effort to expand transitional housing. House Bill 2276 would have provided unhoused people free state identification cards, making it easier for them to apply for housing, but the bill was never considered by a committee. Instead, one bill signed into law will reduce housing options for people with substance use disorders. Despite an insufficient number of treatment beds across the state, House Bill 3337 prohibits counties from having more than 250 licensed treatment beds.
Either Senate Bill 38 or Senate Bill 235 would have restored voting rights to people convicted of felony offenses who were no longer incarcerated and under probation or parole supervision. Returned citizens told us how this fundamental right helped them to reconnect to their communities, and research shows that voting is associated with reduced recidivism. Neither bill was taken up by a committee.
Probation and parole were designed to keep people out of prison. But one out of two people who entered a West Virginia prison in 2022 were there for a probation or parole violation. Half of those people were imprisoned for a “technical violation,” such as a positive drug screen or missed appointment. In other words, one out of every four people that went to prison was sent there for behavior that does not involve a new crime.
Last year, one returned citizen told us that “one of the biggest things that people [on probation and parole] need are incentives… you do certain things, you’re taking schooling, getting your GED, taking vocational programs, that gets you good time.”
House Bill 3445 gave lawmakers an opportunity to provide these positive incentives, while also addressing the technical violations that are driving people into prison. The bill, which passed the House, would have empowered parole and probation officers to grant compliance credits (for work, school, and drug treatment) that incentivize good behavior, shorten supervision periods, and give officers the chance to rescind good time instead of sending someone back to prison. The bill died in the Senate.
A Silver Lining
There was some good news. Senate Bill 558 will keep police departments from posting mugshots on social media platforms, ending a shameful practice that harms people experiencing arrest and undermines the presumption of innocence. At the last minute, the budget bill, House Bill 2024, was amended to include public defenders in the $2,300 pay raises given to other state employees. And on the last day of session, lawmakers passed a bill that could ease jail overcrowding and protect people from the harms of incarceration. Senate Bill 633 will require magistrates and judges to set a hearing within five days of a person’s arrest. This uniform standard means that counties will not spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a jail bill before a person even has a hearing.
This year’s session could have had much worse consequences if not for the work of dozens of people with lived experience. The WVCBP is grateful to those who shared their time, expertise, and advocacy in the pursuit of a more just and equitable West Virginia.
Day after day, these folks proved that those closest to the problem are those we should trust to solve it.
Read Sara’s full blog post.
While West Virginia’s unemployment rate remained historically low in 2022, the state’s employment rate remained flat, its labor force shrunk overall, and it had the worst job growth in the nation.
As of February 2023, West Virginia’s unemployment rate stood at 3.7 percent, the same rate from February 2022. While 3.7 percent is a historically low unemployment rate, it is not statistically significantly different from the national average.
It is important to note that this historically low unemployment rate did not result from a historically high number of employed West Virginians. In fact, the number of employed West Virginians actually fell over the past year, with 1,705 fewer West Virginians employed in February of 2023 than in February of 2022. After recovering from the pandemic, the number of employed West Virginians has begun to fall, and West Virginia’s low unemployment rate obscures the fact that fewer West Virginians are working.
When it comes to job growth, West Virginia has fallen behind the rest of the country. While the nation as a whole enjoyed total non-farm employment growth of 3.5 percent over the past year, adding 5.2 million jobs, West Virginia’s growth was only 0.7 percent, ranking last among the 50 states and D.C.
One possible explanation for the mismatch between West Virginia’s low unemployment rate and its declining employment and slow job growth is population loss. West Virginia once again lost population in 2022, with deaths far outpacing both births and migration. Given fewer West Virginians overall, it is possible to maintain a low unemployment rate while employment declines and job growth slows.
With West Virginia’s continued population loss masking other poor labor force statistics–and with deaths the leading cause of population loss–the state would be better served by its leaders focusing more on addressing the health and well-being of its people, instead of on pursuing more dubious tax cuts that will only make addressing pressing state needs increasingly difficult.
Read Sean’s full blog post.
West Virginia has long faced significant health-related challenges, many of which could have been meaningfully addressed by bills introduced during the 2023 legislative session. While a couple of positive health-focused bills were passed by the legislature this year, unfortunately lawmakers focused much of their attention on health-related policies based on fear—not facts. A recent op-ed from the WVCBP’s health and safety net policy analyst provides our full recap. Excerpt below:
Two bills that aim to improve health outcomes in the state passed this legislative session. SB 577 addresses insulin costs for West Virginians with private insurance, lowering copay caps for a 30-day supply from $100 to $35. Meanwhile, SB 89 sets higher treatment standards for victims of sexual assault in hospitals. It requires hospitals to have a qualified sexual assault nurse examiner on staff. A transfer agreement with another hospital is needed if they do not have this staff. It also codifies time frames for submitting test kits to local law enforcement and storage protocol. As a whole, the legislation addresses barriers that negatively impact crucial care for people who have experienced sexual assault and is a positive step forward.
Several additional bills (including HB 3274, SB 269, SB 479, SB 489, and HB 3014) sought to improve health outcomes in the Mountain State, but did not pass.
SB 268 significantly changed PEIA benefits to address the program’s rising costs. A positive provision raises inpatient hospital reimbursement to 110 percent of Medicare rates to keep the provider network intact. Through this legislation, lawmakers also sought to address PEIA solvency by shifting costs further onto employees via two main provisions—enacting a firm 80/20 employer-employee benefit split, which will increase employee premiums by an estimated 26 percent in July, and raising insurance costs for employees’ spouses who have another offer of health coverage. While lawmakers paired these health coverage cost increases with a public employee pay raise, some workers will still experience negative financial impacts overall. It remains to be seen how these benefit changes will exacerbate public agency vacancies across the state.
Unfortunately, several harmful bills were passed this session. The most egregious of these bills is HB 2007, limiting gender-affirming care for transgender youth. West Virginia is home to more transgender youth per capita than any other state. Many need health care that aligns their body with their gender, which studies have shown improves their mental health and life outcomes. This health care includes hormone replacement therapy and medication that pauses puberty, the latter being reversible. Despite wide support from medical and transgender communities to protect these therapies, the state passed a law banning access to them, except for those at risk of self-harm or suicide. These risk factors can develop because of untreated gender dysphoria. The bill also prohibits gender-affirming surgery for minors. Notably, there is no evidence that West Virginia children undergo—or have ever undergone—these surgeries. HB 2007 creates unnecessary barriers to critical care and disparages the state’s queer community. This bill was one of several targeting transgender and queer West Virginians, following concerning national trends.
HB 2006 split the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) into three separate agencies. Lawmakers did so without outlining associated costs, fully addressing how the move may impact interactions between bureaus within the agency, and showing how the action would address the core issues DHHR faces. The timing is particularly concerning: the end of the Medicaid continuous coverage provision related to the public health emergency is coming this spring, and the staff-strapped agency will have to reevaluate hundreds of thousands of West Virginians’ eligibility for Medicaid and other programs. Undertaking the agency split amid this additional work could disrupt communication between bureaus that must work together to return the agency to pre-pandemic regulations smoothly.
Overall, the session heavily focused on health-related issues. Still, except for a couple of positive pieces of legislation, it is unclear how the health priorities of lawmakers will actually improve health outcomes in the Mountain State.
Read Rhonda’s full op-ed.
The Summer Policy Institute brings together highly qualified traditional and non-traditional undergraduate students, graduate students, and policy-curious people of all ages to build policy knowledge, leadership skills, and networks.
SPI attendees participate in interactive sessions where they learn the ins and outs of policy change through a research and data lens, as well as crucial skills rooted in community engagement and grassroots mobilization. Attendees will meet West Virginia leaders from government, non-profit advocacy, and grassroots organizing spaces to build relationships and networks.
Throughout the convening, participants work in small teams to identify and develop policy proposals to shape the future they want to see in the Mountain State, culminating in team “policy pitches” to community leaders. Sessions will equip participants to focus on defining the problem as an essential first step before progressing to proposing solutions.
After three years of virtual SPI, we’re excited to announce that we will be returning to an in-person format for SPI 2023! The event will take place at Fairmont State University from July 28-30.
There is no cost to attend, and students can work with professors to receive course credit. It is required that participants attend all sessions during the three-day convening.
To apply, please complete this Google Form and submit your brief letter of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org. The application deadline is May 1.
For more information, please see our event landing page.
The WVCBP’s Elevating the Medicaid Enrollment Experience (EMEE) Voices Project seeks to collect stories from West Virginians who have struggled to access Medicaid across the state. Being conducted in partnership with West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, EMEE Voices will gather insight to inform which Medicaid barriers are most pertinent to West Virginians, specifically people of color.
Do you have a Medicaid experience to share? We’d appreciate your insight. Just fill out the contact form on this webpage and we’ll reach out to you soon. We look forward to learning from you!
You can watch WVCBP’s health policy analyst Rhonda Rogombé and West Virginians for Affordable Health Care’s Mariah Plante further break down the project and its goals in this FB Live.
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