February 11, 2018

Talking sense on WV's prison crisis

This op-ed by co-worker Lida Shepherd appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. It's worth a look.

Even in this moment of divisiveness, there is one thing Republicans and Democrats, Tea Party activists, taxpayers and politicians can all agree on: We have lost the so-called “War on Drugs.”

A generation ago, a steady drumbeat began for policies that were “tough on crime,” resulting in more arrests, harsher sentences and more prisons. Now we know what happens when you treat our generation’s greatest public health crisis as if it were a criminal justice problem.

In four decades, our prison population has increased 500 percent, and hundreds of billions of our tax dollars are spent on the incarceration, probation or paroling of 2 percent of the entire U.S. population (disproportionately people who are low-income and people of color).

And yet, today, the drug crisis rages on and the overdose deaths are higher than ever, especially in West Virginia.

In response to the inextricably linked crises of mass incarceration and the drug epidemic, people across the political spectrum, including Newt Gingrich, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Rand Paul are calling for policies that are “smart on crime,” emphasizing drug treatment centers instead of prison beds.

Despite this marked shift in the conversation, some of our state legislators continue to pursue the unsuccessful and costly strategies of the War on Drugs, all which would continue to tear families apart and reverse the gains made since the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2013, which sought to reduce the prison population through alternative sentencing, speedier paroling and enhanced parole services.

The West Virginia House of Delegates just passed House Bill 2607 that extends the maximum period of confinement, from 60 days to six months, that a judge may impose for minor first-time probationary violations. Without question, this measure will increase the prison population at a cost to taxpayers, and yet this bill was passed with no fiscal note.

Another bill that would add to the prison population, the West Virginia Senate passed Senate Bill 37 which will make daytime burglaries carry an extra five-year penalty. Is the rationale that a person who may commit a burglary — probably to feed a drug addiction — spends his or her time reading obscure statutes and will now think twice?

And last but not least, the Senate passed Senate Bill 73, which creates a whole new felony and mandatory minimum sentence for a person who leaves the scene of an accident, which effectively ties judges’ hands instead of allowing them to consider all the facts in what is already a tragic case.

Lawmakers want to show they are “tough on crime” instead of “smart on crime,” so they pass laws to create longer sentences and more felonies. Then, prosecutors can use the threat of a long sentence to pressure people — most of whom are low-income people and people of color — into taking a negotiated guilty plea now, instead of risking a 10- or 20-year sentence at trial later, which may not happen for a year or two, if ever.

Indeed more than 95 percent of cases never even go to trial. Never mind that the Sixth Amendment says, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.”

Policies that establish longer sentences, stiffer penalties and new crimes is how mass incarceration happens; it is no accident. Continuing down this path means there perpetually will not be enough money for prevention, jobs programs, higher education or treatment beds.

On a positive note, the House Judiciary Committee passed House Bill 2727, which instructs the Division of Motor Vehicles to work with the Division of Corrections in assisting people leaving prison to obtain a state ID. HB 2727 addresses a huge barrier people face when trying to get on track to becoming stable taxpayers. We hope the House Finance Committee will see the impact this bill could have on recidivism and workforce participation, and put it on its agenda.

Is this the year we finally choose treatment beds over prison beds, and reject policies that do nothing to enhance public safety or West Virginians’ ability to get an education or a good-paying job? Only if we tell our lawmakers to “Just Say No” to the failed policies of the past that have cost us so much, in tax dollars and, even more tragically and incalculably, in human potential.

Lida Shepherd is program director for the American Friends Service Committee.

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