State director for Americans For Prosperity sees plenty of work ahead for criminal justice reform

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Jason Huffman, the West Virginia State Director for Americans for Prosperity (AFP), said the 2021 Regular Legislative Session brought a mixed bag in terms of what the organization would consider positive movement in criminal justice reform (CJR).

Speaking to MetroNews, he said there is still a ways to go for the state to become smarter on crime and softer on taxpayers in terms of CJR. He said there needs to be a better distinction between people who represent a genuine danger to society and people ‘we are just mad at.’

Jason Huffman

“Right now, we have a justice system that is too expensive, over-criminalizes certain activities and quite frankly just is not working too well because we are trapping people in a cycle of poverty and recidivism. We need to move away from that,” Huffman said.

Huffman believed the 2020 legislative session represented a more positive vision than the 2021 session that he thought moved towards the approach of tougher on crime and increasing sentences for low-level crime.

AFP came out in opposition of HB 2017, the rewriting of the criminal code, which ultimately stalled late in the session. The nearly 400-page bill updated hundreds of crimes.

Huffman said it was well-intentioned but fatally flawed with increased sentencing to more punitive levels several crimes including low-level misdemeanors. He said this tough-on-crime approach leads to more poverty and recidivism.

He said ending that cycle of poverty led to AFP’s support of HB 3304, which authorized the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to establish a Reentry and Transitional Housing Program. It was signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice in April.

Huffman said the state should not be creating more barriers for people who want to reenter society.

“We’ve got to do a better job of managing it the back end of incarceration to make sure that people who want to become good standing, contributing members of society again, have as few barrier in their way to be able to do just that,” he said. “We need to focus more on reentry in order to accomplish that.”

AFP was also in support of HB 2891 that passed and was approved by Justice in late April. The law will create minimum statutory standards for law-enforcement officers, which Huffman said would maintain public safety and policing practices that build trust in communities.

“It’s ensuring that law enforcement officers who are hired don’t have any misconduct on their record. We have seen in the past where there has not been a focus on that and that leads to negative outcomes and frankly some folks that should not be in law enforcement continue to be,” Huffman said.

AFP has plenty of goals in mind in the coming months and years that it may take for CJR as listed in a “Path to Prosperity 2021-2022.” Those include but not limited to allow for ongoing sentencing reforms to be retroactive for non-violent offenses, increase the felony theft threshold, significantly narrow, and in some cases eliminate, sentencing enhancements, place a moratorium on any additional sentence enhancements, decriminalize Marijuana, and increase funding for reentry and transition housing through corrections cost savings and reducing funding for other budgetary items that do not represent a genuine priority.

Huffman said to get those efforts completed will take his organization bringing further education to legislators.

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