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Criminal justice reform summit focusing on legislative goals

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With the 2021 legislative session in West Virginia just weeks away, criminal justice reform is being discussed and priorities are taking shape during a summit in West Virginia.

American Friends Service Committee, WV Council of Churches, WV Center on Budget and Policy, ACLU-WV, and Appalachian Prison Book Project are hosting a virtual summit that focuses on criminal justice reform and feature sessions exploring the significance of poverty before, during, and after incarceration.

Lida Shepherd

Lida Shepherd with American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) told MetroNews that there is interest in making progress towards reform and reducing incarceration. She is optimistic about the session, noting growing concerns she had heard about the money spent on incarceration and county jail bills.

“We’ve seen evidence of that at the state legislature over the past few years where the issue has gotten a lot of bipartisan support. This summit is in an effort to really see more progress,” Shepherd said.

The summit, featuring national experts such as Federal Judge Michael Aloi and Bruce Western from Columbia University, began Wednesday and ends Saturday through multiple Facebook and Zoom platforms.

Western, the Co-Director of the Justice Lab at Columbia, most recently co-authored a report “Decarcerating Correctional Facilities During COVID” released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Bruce Western

VIEW: Information about the 2021 summit

Shepherd said Aloi looked at his personal experiences as a judge and what he sees in the courtroom, which includes those in poverty most often. She said the statistics show people who are crowding the jail systems are people of color and people struggling with homelessness, poverty, addiction, and mental health problems.

Shepherd said legislators want to look at several issues in the upcoming session including sentencing reform, reentry support like transitional housing, restored voting rights for people on parole and probation, restorative justice for juveniles, and “Ban the Box” to ensure fairness in employment for formerly incarcerated people.

She credited 2020 legislative actions such as bail reform but admitted it has not been as implemented as her committee would like to see.

Ultimately, Shepherd said over-incarceration is costly to the state dearly.

“Both in terms of tax dollars and the effect, it is having on children. More and more, people are asking themselves whether we are solving our problems or actually making them worse,” she said.

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