March 31, 2021

One big prison yard?

 Last year, the Legislature passed a bill creating a sentencing commission to jump start reforms in the criminal justice system.

There was a consensus that West Virginia’s penalties were out of sync and, often, more severe than those of neighboring states, at great expense to the public and without making anyone any safer.

As then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee John Shott, R-Mercer, said: “Among the many challenges facing our state, the reform of our criminal justice system is one of the least publicized. To keep this in context, we have a system in which we are 20 to 25% over capacity, and our prisons, our regional jails are overflowing.”

And that was before COVID-19 hit, which makes the issue of reform even more urgent.

The pandemic slowed the work of the commission, but things are starting to move.

Unfortunately, even before the commission gets down to the heavy lifting, proposed legislation in the House of Delegates would drastically rewrite the state’s criminal code before the process has a chance to work.

The measure in question, House Bill 2017, is truly gargantuan. The introduced version was no less than 391 pages. At present, it’s up to 411 pages. It was sprung on the House far too late in the session for members to digest the implications of what they’re going to vote on.

While the bill is no doubt well intentioned, it was crafted without consulting with prosecutors, public defenders, judges, others who work in the system or advocates — much less those directly affected.

If enacted, the bill would increase prison sentences for many offenses (with some exceptions), while also delaying parole eligibility. In particular, it changes many sentences from an indeterminate system, which provides some flexibility, to a determinate system that often would increase the minimum and maximum sentences.

This also would have the effect of reducing the incentives for people in prisons to participate in rehabilitation, education and/or recovery programs, since they would have to serve longer before being eligible for parole.

One provision of the bill that seems especially harsh would increase fines for many offenses and even require some inmates to pay the cost of their incarceration. Since people with low incomes are more likely to get caught in the system to start with, this would increase debt of those families and contribute to the criminalization of poverty.

According to the American Action Forum, which describes itself as center-right, “Adults in poverty are three times more likely to be arrested than those who aren’t, and people earning less than 150% of the federal poverty level are 15 times more likely to be charged with a felony — which, by definition, carries a longer sentence — than people earning above that threshold.”

The Prison Policy Initiative reports: “Poverty is not only a predictor of involvement with the justice system: Too often, it is also the outcome. Criminal punishment subjects people to countless fines, fees and other costs (often enriching private companies in the process). A criminal record, meanwhile, does lasting collateral damage.”

Rather than gallop to a premature decision, a wiser step would be to refer the ideas contained in HB 2017 to the sentencing commission so that its provisions, along with the ideas of others familiar with all aspects of the system, can be evaluated in consultation with all stakeholders.

In the meantime, lawmakers might do better to focus on reforms to reduce mass incarceration and its cost to individuals, communities, families and taxpayers.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

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