CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Americans for Prosperity, a long-time supporter of conservative and libertarian causes, is expressing optimism about the prospects for reform of West Virginia’s criminal justice system.
West Virginia State Director Jason Huffman told MetroNews there are several areas that his organization believes need to be addressed, including sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. He added hamstrung judges have led to some prison terms that are disproportionate to the seriousness of the offense.
“These folks, when they go into that system, they have a stigma for life,” he said. “I know that there are some bills going through the process, right now, in the state House that would work on non-violent, low-level offenders, expunging some of those records, so that these folks can be part of society again.
“You see recidivism go up because these folks can’t find a job. And it’s just not what we should be doing, especially in West Virginia, where people have big hearts and they’re willing to give second chances for somebody that wants to work.”
Huffman said the Legislature should address civil asset forfeiture laws, in which local police departments can keep all or a portion of possessions seized during a criminal investigation regardless if a conviction is made.
Americans for Prosperity regularly has decried such laws, which Huffman said create a perverse incentive for law enforcement to abuse the process.
“It’s a basic property rights issue,” he said. “What we want to see is to take that system of civil asset forfeiture and essentially end it by requiring a conviction, before the government can retain your property permanently.”
AFP-West Virginia joined with the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia in 2018 to demand changing or repealing the West Virginia Contraband Forfeiture Act, which allows any law enforcement agency in the state to seize property that investigators determine may have been used in the commission of a crime.
The issue of civil asset forfeiture received increased attention in 2018 when a traveling New Jersey couple was stopped by West Virginia authorities who seized more than $10,000, gift cards and a cell phone. The officer allegedly accused the two of smuggling drugs into the state, although no drugs were found.
No charges were filed and no traffic citations were issued. The money and property eventually were returned.
The House Judiciary Committee considered a bill last session that would tie civil asset forfeiture to a respective criminal proceeding, but the proposal died.