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Report: W.Va. must work on criminal justice reform

CHARLESTON — While West Virginia has taken steps to help people with criminal convictions enter the workforce, more work needs to be done.

That’s according to “The Collateral Consequences that a Felony Record Can have on West Virginians Access to Employment, Housing, Professional Licensing and Public Benefits,” a report released Sept. 25 from the West Virginia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The report is based on briefings by conference call and in person between May 4, 2018, and July 19, 2018.

“The State of West Virginia has promulgated and enforces sundry laws that affect the prospects of those individuals with a criminal record,” the report stated. “These laws create a web of difficulties in that individual’s ability successfully to pursue employment opportunities, occupational licenses, adequate housing and public benefits.”

The report defines “collateral consequences” as any sanction or penalty imposed after a criminal conviction that prevent someone from getting a job or starting a business, as well as bar them from housing or benefits.

“These penalties are ‘collateral’ in the sense that they are imposed on persons returning from or completing a term of arrest, imprisonment, parole, probation, or otherwise participating in a supervised release program after serving jail time as punishment for that crime,” according to the report. “These individuals with a criminal record suffer from collateral consequence not directly as punishment for the crime, but because of their record as arrestees, misdemeanor violators, or former felons.”

The committee calls these forms of penalties and sanctions unfair, preventing someone who has served their time from being able to live a normal life and often leading to the person returning to crime.

Tina Martinez, chairperson for the state advisory committee, said committee brought in experts from around the country and witnesses who described their issues with being hired, finding a place to live or receiving government benefits.

“Because of the opioid epidemic and so many other factors around felony convictions in the State of West Virginia, we really wanted to focus on how folks when they come out of incarceration are acclimating back into society and what barriers are keeping them from having a smooth transition back,” Martinez said.

According to the National Collateral Consequences inventory cited by the report, there are more than 800 laws in West Virginia as of 2019 that impose additional penalties on the more than 629,000 West Virginians with criminal records. These include being unable to obtain licenses for different job fields, additional background check requirements, no protection under the state Fair Housing Act, and denial of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

West Virginia’s laws affecting those with criminal convictions helps add to the state’s poor employment numbers.

As of August, the West Virginia’s labor force participation rate, the number of employed and those looking for work, was 54.9 percent while the U.S. rate was 63.2 percent.

To help combat the labor participation numbers and to prevent West Virginians with criminal records from returning to crime and ending back in prison or jail, lawmakers have passed several bills over the years. The Second Chance for Employment Act, passed in 2017, reduces criminal convictions for non-violent drug-related felonies to misdemeanors after 10 years as long as certain conditions are met.

Other laws passed in 2019 include Senate Bill 152, which allows people with nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors to petition to have their convictions expunged by a county circuit court judge.

House Bill 2083 gives inmates about to be released a temporary identification card. House Bill 118 eases restrictions for people with criminal convictions from receiving professional licenses. And House Bill 2459 no longer denies Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to people with felony drug convictions.

“I think that West Virginia is making very considerable strides in this area,” Martinez said. “This is a bipartisan issue across the aisle. Folks are working together and at all levels really everyone is working together to make sure that those who are coming out of incarceration are given an opportunity to make a better life for themselves so that the recidivism rate isn’t just perpetrated.”

The advisory committee has a number of recommendations for lawmakers and policymakers. These include continued focus on drug addiction and treatment programs, mental health services, and family reunification. It also called for funding efforts to encourage public housing authorities and private owners to offer housing to people with records, boost post-secondary education opportunities and job training, and continue tweaks to the Second Chance for Employment Act.

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