Before West Virginia can make any substantial progress in lowering its incarceration rates, Lida Shepherd, with the American Friends Service Committee, said that residents here — and everywhere — need to shift the way they think about “wrongdoings.”
“We need to shift the idea of what we consider bad behavior, and what we think is appropriate responses to that type of behavior,” Shepherd said.
On Saturday, Shepherd was joined by Loree Stark, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, and Rayna Momen, the summer policy fellow at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, on a panel discussing mass incarceration in West Virginia and how to end it.
The conversation was moderated by Gabrielle Chapman, Executive Director of Call to Action for Racial Equality, and was part of the WVCBP’s fourth annual Summer Policy Institute, which this year focused on criminal justice reform in West Virginia.
As part of the weekend-long conference, held at West Virginia State University, undergraduate and graduate students listened to conversations and panels hosted by experts in criminal justice, as well as WVCBP staff.
Saturday morning’s discussion had two main focuses: who the key players are in ending mass incarceration in the state, and what steps can be taken — through policy changes and cultural changes — to address mass incarceration.
Stark said prosecutors probably wield the most power when it comes to criminal justice in the state, and in order for any changes to be made, they need to be part of conversations moving forward.
“They, more than law enforcement and probably even more than judges, are the ones that have the most influence and control over this,” Stark said.
Those on Saturday’s panel said “restorative justice,” which focuses on rehabilitation efforts instead of incarceration or punishment, is one way of thinking that should be utilized more by those who operate West Virginia’s criminal justice system.
Shepherd said she heard of an example in Calhoun County schools, where, if students break the rules or “offend” in some way, they’re called in for a conversation about their actions instead of immediately receiving a suspension or expulsion.
Part of the struggle in making effective criminal justice reforms in this state, Stark said, is changing the mindsets of some who are the gatekeepers for those policies.
For example, bail reform could potentially help thousands in the state, Stark said. Most people sitting in jail right now, she said, are not convicted of crimes. Instead, they cannot afford the bail set for their release. While they sit in jail, as well, they may lose their jobs because they cannot show up to work, or experience other negative effects in their families or other aspects of life.
“We need to eliminate cash bail, that’s the first step of many, but it needs to happen,” Stark said.
For Momen, a PhD student at West Virginia University studying sociology with an emphasis on mass incarceration, said the number one step that all West Virginians need to take in order to achieve positive change in our criminal justice system is shifting their attitudes toward incarceration, but also people who have been incarcerated.
“We have to stop using incarceration as a means to punish people every time they do something we see as ‘inappropriate’ behavior. We need to come up with better, healthier ways to respond,” Momen said. “There’s a stigma here, too, when we hear that people have spent some time in jail or were incarcerated — a negative perception. We need to work on dispelling that and getting people reintegrated into society. It’s for the benefit of us all.”