March 04, 2016

Mandatory minimums: a dead end road

This op-ed in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail was a collaborative effort between my friends Pastor Matthew Watts, Lida Shepherd and myself:

Across the country and the political spectrum, many people have begun to realize we took a wrong turn a while back.

While pursuing legitimate concerns about crime and drugs, Americans set off on a decades-long binge of prison building and mass incarceration. The good we sought never materialized, but the collateral damage was massive.

Unfortunately, two bills that just passed the West Virginia House, HB 4240 and 4578, would put us back on that wrong road by imposing harsh mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent drug offenders.

These measures would do nothing to make our communities safer, help people recover from addiction, reduce recidivism or help fund education or economic development.

On the other hand, they would lead to another prison population explosion, further bust the state’s budget, destabilize families and communities, deplete West Virginia’s shrinking workforce and make it harder for the state to invest in education, early childhood and economic development. And they would threaten to undo the progress the state has made with Justice Reinvestment legislation.

These bills also go against the grain of the work of many Republican leaders who have advocated a more intelligent approach to these issues. Some who have opposed mandatory minimums include former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Texas governor Rick Perry, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

A little background from the Coalition for Public Safety might help put things in perspective. The coalition is a national effort of unlikely allies and supporters that includes such conservative giants as Koch Industries, Americans for Tax Reform and Freedom Works as well as groups like the ACLU and NAACP.

According to their research:

•  While the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of its prisoners. We now lead the world with 2.2 million in prisons or jails. Our prison population has gone up by 500 percent over the last 30 years.

•  The federal prison population has increased by nearly 800 percent over the last few decades. Of these, 60 percent are nonviolent offenders.

•  Taxpayers are paying $80 billion per year to pay for this. And the costs are rising.

•  Between 70 million and 100 million Americans — nearly one out of three — has some kind of criminal record, “which carries lifelong barriers that can block successful re-entry and participation in society because of restrictions on employment, housing and voting. Mass incarceration contributes to a cycle of poverty that traps individuals, families and entire communities for generations.”

•  People who have been incarcerated typically earn 40 percent less per year than those who haven’t.

•  While drug abuse and crime occur across ethnic and socio-economic lines, punishments fall hardest on low-income communities and people of color. African-Americans are four times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans and more than 60 percent of the prison population now come from minority communities.

It’s pretty clear. The blind alley of mass incarceration doesn’t make us safer, but it has destroyed lives and families and sucked up resources urgently needed elsewhere. Millions of Americans now live under the burden of felony convictions, which has been called “social death,” a lifelong loss of rights and privileges, along with poor life chances for work, education, asset building and family life. Meanwhile, the drug epidemic continues unabated.

Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, we need to move forward based on evidence-based approaches that actually work to promote public safety, such as substance abuse treatment, community corrections for low-risk nonviolent offenders, validated risk and need assessments of offenders, and help with reentry to avoid recidivism.

Going backward is not an option.

March 03, 2016

Authoritarianism in our time.

OK, so this is another example of a post that's more like a tweet, but here's a look at authoritarianism in our time. Those who have ears, let them hear.

March 02, 2016


The WV legislative session has been...a cross between a zombie apocalypse and a roller coaster ride. And a root canal. But there have been surprises, not all of them bad. I was amazed to learn that the WV senate voted down a "religious freedom" bill that had turned into and attempt to legalize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

I guess the action started last night, when some key Republican senators joined with Democrats to ensure the bill wouldn't harm nondiscrimination ordinances.It was a pretty touching story, in which some people got emotional and decided to follow their conscience.

 This evening, I'm amazed and pleased to say that the senate voted the whole thing down without debate. Here's the AP report.

It just goes to show you never know what is going to happen.

Human motivations being inherently ambiguous, some probably voted against the amended bill because it wasn't strong enough, while others took a strong anti-discrimination stand. In any case, kudos and thanks to the senate for this one.

February 29, 2016

Another food fight

For some reason,this is the year that WV legislators want to mess with the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Some of the measures proposed are well intentioned if problematic.Some are just plain mean. And some just don't seem to have been thought through. Here's some good coverage about why getting it right matters.

February 28, 2016

On the road again

This op-ed of mine appeared in the Saturday Gazette-Mail. It's about a simple way we could help more West Virginians get back to work.

A common-sense, bipartisan, and noncontroversial bill that would actually help a lot of people has gained traction in the state legislature. It has already had smooth sailing in the Senate.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day.

The bill in question is called the Second Chance Driver’s License Act, aka SB 634/HB 4683, and it was introduced at the request of Gov. Tomblin.

If the political stars line up, it’s a policy solution to a serious problem.

Let’s start with the problem. Every year, over 50,000 West Virginians lose their driving privileges for reasons like fines they can’t afford to pay for things that have nothing to do with DUIs or traffic safety issues.

You don’t have to be an expert on West Virginia to know that:

1. This is a very rural state with little in the way of reliable public transportation.

2. In that environment, if you can’t drive it’s hard to get and keep a job.

3. If you can’t get or keep a job, you don’t have much in the way of a reliable income.

4. If you have no income, it’s hard to pay fines, which makes it hard to get your driving privileges restored.

5. See #1.

Without the ability to drive, it’s often hard to take care of basic family, educational and medical needs. But there are other effects that may not be as obvious.

For example, I recently had the opportunity to talk with several West Virginians who were recovering from opioid addictions. I was stunned to hear from them that the inability to drive — or more exactly, the inability to do all the things that legally driving means — can be a cause of relapse.

Once I thought about it, it made sense. If you can’t get to treatment — let alone take care of the basics — frustrations can mount. Sometimes something snaps.

Fortunately, the policy solution is pretty simple: the legislation in question creates a provisional driver’s license program which eligible participants who have not jeopardized public safety while driving can enter. It would allow them to drive to work provided they make payments on their outstanding obligations.

The idea is to enable people who remain in good standing to repay at least $50 per month and complete the program in the course of a year, although there flexibility that may allow lower payments or longer participation in some cases.

It this passes, everyone would win. Courts and local governments would collect money they otherwise wouldn’t; people can re-enter the workforce, get on with their lives, meet basic family needs and even stay on the road to recovery; local businesses get more employees and paying customers; and the state gains more productive, taxpaying citizens.

We are often reminded of our low workforce participation rates. This is one common sense solution to help more West Virginians get back in the game.