This post was written by Deborah Ujevich, Community Organizer at The West Virginia Family of Convicted People
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
How many times have we heard that sentiment expressed? Yet that’s exactly what we do, over and over again. And until meaningful measures are taken to treat substance abuse as a public health crisis, and not a criminal act, the cycle of arrests and stigmatization are the only actions that will continue to take place.
At this point in time—and especially now, with egregiously cruel legislation like SB 334 having been codified into law—West Virginia seems further away than ever from addressing the rampant substance abuse issues that abound here. This is a big problem – and it will require big reforms to address it. The graph below illustrates just how badly these reforms are needed. West Virginia’s incarcerated population has increased dramatically since 1980, largely driven by a carceral response to drug and other nonviolent offenses.
As a non-native – and a justice-impacted person – I was astounded at the barbarism of West Virginia’s criminal justice system; addressing the myriad reasons that this is so is an issue far more complex than this one blog post can provide. But here’s a start: West Virginia is hardly incentivizing any meaningful way of life for people who are struggling, let alone one free of the escapism of substance abuse. Furthermore, there is little in the way of economic motivation to move people beyond the money that they can make in the drug trade. And there is very little rehabilitation within the criminal justice system, which is existentially punitive.
The aforementioned SB 334 takes things to another level, as its system of reforms surrounding harm reduction programs – particularly needle exchanges – were designed to effectively eliminate any access to harm reduction in the state. And this was done DESPITE the fact that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has identified Kanawha County as the county with the most concerning HIV outbreak in the nation.
The 2021 legislative session birthed some of the most outrageously mean-spirited legislation in the memories of those whose job it is to respond to, or propose, legislative action. Hideous advantage was taken of the pandemic, yet inside the Capitol a number of lawmakers flouted CDC guidance regarding mask-wearing & social distancing – all while they used that very guidance to keep the public out of the people’s business.
There was a bright spot or two this year – the defeat of HB 2257, which would have added up to 10 years of additional supervised release for certain drug offenses, is one of them. Stopping that bill was due in no small part to the efforts of one Kenny Matthews, a man who spent a number of years in and out of the revolving door of the West Virginia criminal justice system. And as much of a relief as the failure of that bill is, there was just so much against which to defend that it was well nigh impossible to craft any meaningful offense.
And offense will be the goal for the 2022 legislative session. Because the legislature will comprise the same set of individuals who are largely responsible for the regressive public health and criminal justice policy of this year’s session, we, as coalition partners, will need to work hard in the off-session months and utilize interims to their fullest. We certainly cannot stop bad legislation from being introduced, but armed with this year’s experience, we can counter the bad and prepare to foster some positive reforms.