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Q & A: What Would Criminal Justice Reform Look Like In West Virginia?

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Steve Helber/ Associated Press
Inmates mill around the yard in front of a cellblock at the maximum-security Mount Olive Correctional Center in Mount Olive, W.Va. 2012.

Some state lawmakers in West Virginia are looking at some ways to address our overcrowded prison system and help more previously incarcerated people reenter the workforce. What would criminal justice reform look like in West Virginia? Last year, several groups and non-profits went around the state to gather testimony and stories from over 200 people about their experiences with the criminal justice system. Their stories were collected through interviews, surveys and focus groups. 

Lida Shepherd works with one of the groups spearheading the project, The American Friends Service Committee. Shepherd sat down with West Virginia Public Broadcasting to share some of the results.

***Editor's Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: What were some of the themes that emerged from what people talked about?

LIDA SHEPHERD: We definitely heard a lot of trauma. I think, as a society, we fall into this trap of thinking that people who are formerly incarcerated, we look at them through this one dimensional lens of they are a criminal or they are a felon. And what we heard a lot about was people who had very complex lives and had really complex challenges growing up.

Q: And how does race and things like implicit bias factor into how people are treated by the criminal justice system in our state?

SHEPHERD: Looking at the numbers of the demographics of our prison system, there is no doubt that there is racial bias at every point of the system, from policing, to arrest, to who get sent to drug court.

Q: So the people who are often offered this opportunity for treatment as an alternative to being sent to jail or prison are often white, and the people that are of color often just get funneled into the prison system?

SHEPHERD: Yep. And I think it also shows up even in sentencing, the length that somebody is sentenced. So really at every single point, you see the racial bias show up. The numbers bear that out. And then as far as women incarceration, I mean, that's a sector of the population that has just steadily climbed. We are incarcerating more women in this state, year after year. And that is in part attributed to, of course, the opioid crisis and just everything that occurs around addiction in West Virginia. And I think it's also attributed to women actually being perceived differently by judges. There is actually a real gender bias when sentencing occurs. It's a little counterintuitive, you would think that women would be let off more easily. But what we actually see is that women are actually sentenced more harshly. And I think part of that is because, quote unquote "bad behavior" amongst men is a little bit more expected, and therefore a little maybe more acceptable. A woman being brought before a judge for the same crime is actually sentenced more harshly. 

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Credit Courtesy Lida Shepherd/ American Friends Service Committee
Lida Shepherd

Q: What did you hear about the types of ways that people are treated when they’re children? I know we have a high rate in the state of children being suspended, or being put into some type of juvenile justice situation. What did you hear about how people are treated as children, and how that transforms into their adult behavior?

SHEPHERD: You know, you're listening to people's stories. And often when you ask them to tell their story, it starts in childhood. And people talked about how situations that occurred in their childhood led them to acting out in school, that led them to getting expelled or suspended, lead them into the juvenile justice system. And we know that if you are in the juvenile justice system, your likelihood of ending up in the adult criminal justice system is very likely.

The first point of contact that kids often have with the juvenile justice system starts in schools. They end up in the juvenile justice system because of truancy, because of these really low-level status offenses.

And we are not equipping schools as much as we should be to really deal with the complex issues that these kids are facing. They're coming into school every day bearing a lot of weight of trauma, and of adverse childhood experiences. And so I think really having those [mental health] services in schools, I think, would really go very far to keeping kids in school, not expelling them, not suspending them.

Q: So what happens next? What types of changes out of this project could occur?

SHEPHERD: Well, its legislative session, and the legislature is really taking a pretty careful look at how we can address and reduce incarceration. I think there is growing consensus that this is a really expensive way of dealing with very complex social problems. So we're seeing a big effort to look at our money bail system, so that people aren't being held in regional jails who have not been convicted of a crime, but simply cannot afford to make bail.

There's also an effort to basically look at our parole system and make sure that people are being released earlier who pose no threat to public safety. Once they are parole eligible, they are paroled. And that we are providing as much support to them upon release, because definitely one of the things we've heard over and over again is that the barriers to people who are released from jail are often insurmountable barriers to employment: housing, transportation, food. And while we've been tackling some of those barriers, we have a long way to go.

Lida Shepherd works with with the American Friends Service Committee and was one of the people involved in the Criminal Justice Listening Project, which compiled the testimonies of people across West Virginia. The majority of those interviewed have experienced incarceration or have had family members behind bars.


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