Four Reasons Black People Fill W.Va. Prisons

Apr 21, 2016

Pastor Watts shows a WVPB camera crew around his West Side neighborhood.

Blacks make up only 3 percent of West Virginia’s population – but 28 percent of the people in jail or prison. What gives?

Are black people committing more crimes? Or is the criminal justice system biased against blacks?

”I think it’s almost 100 percent the bias against black people,” said Pastor Matthew Watts of the HOPE Community Development Corporation. Watts has worked for more than 20 years to help young people find employment.

But Watts says we can’t deal with employment until we stop “over-incarcerating” low-income and black people for non-violent drug crimes.

His evidence?

1. Bias in school discipline. In West Virginia, black students made up 11 percent of suspensions and 8 percent of expulsions – even though they make up only 5 percent of the total student population, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.

“They’re often expelled for things other students don’t get suspended for,” Watts said.

2. Bias in juvenile justice. Black youth are punished more harshly that whites in W.Va.’s juvenile justice system, even when you take into account their history and severity of the charge, according to a 2004 Marshall University study.

“These minority youth were significantly more likely than their White counterparts to receive harsher disposition and were more than twice as likely to be detained prior to adjudication,” the study said.

3. Bias in police stops. Blacks and Hispanics are stopped, ticketed and searched at higher rates, but are LESS likely to be found with drugs in the car, according to a 2009 study by the W.Va. Division of Criminal Justice.

4. Bias in drug arrests and prosecutions. There’s evidence that whites deal drugs at HIGHER rates than black people. And drug use is only slightly higher in the black community.

The rate of illegal drug use in the last month among African Americans 12 and up is 12.4 percent, compared to the national average of 10.2 percent, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“But when you look at who gets arrested, prosecuted, and goes to prison,” Watts said, it’s a different story. Why?

Rev. Watts
Credit PBS NewsHour/Sam Weber

Watts blames a higher police presence and more prosecution. He says prosecutors tell him it’s cheaper to get a conviction in poor, minority communities.

“We have to spend a lot more money if we’re investigating a case in South Hills,” Watts said, referring to Charleston’s wealthiest neighborhood.

Watts dealt with incarceration in his family, when his adult son pled guilty to dealing a small amount of heroin. He was sentenced to probation, and now is working for HOPE.

Watts said it was hardest for his wife and four daughters.

“To see the hurt in my wife’s eyes, to see the hurt in his sisters’ eyes, that was the hardest thing for me,” he said. “Because my son was their hero…and a good guy.

“I’m very proud of how he responded to this. He never went and hid. He never tried to excuse what he did. You cannot ask for more than that.”

Watts said his son is indispensable to HOPE for his skill in construction and maintenance. But not all young people are as fortunate.

“There are so many young men and a growing number of your women who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system, who have learned their lesson, and that really want to be a responsible citizen, and they just get kicked in the face. They’re told you’re no longer of value. We’re casting away gifted people we really need.”

This is part of a two-part conversation with Watts. We also spoke with him about his rise from a single-parent household in the coalfields, to a college degree and engineering career before he went into the ministry and community development full time.

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