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As WV’s jail crisis mounts, ‘Second Look’ policies gain traction

Nadia Ramlagan

Amid overcrowding and unsafe conditions in West Virginia jails, state lawmakers introduced bills that would allow judges to take a ‘second look’ at an individual’s original sentence.

If a court determines they no longer pose a threat to the community, the person could be released, placed on supervision, or receive a shortened sentence.

Sara Whitaker – criminal legal policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy – said West Virginia is one of the few states that has seen its prison population balloon over the past decade, despite declining crime.

She noted that as of last month, more than 500 people in the state were in jail awaiting transfer to a prison.

“As a result, eight out of 10 of the regional jails in the state were beyond capacity,” said Whitaker, “with hundreds of people assigned to sleeping on the floor.”

The bills failed to advance this session, but Whitaker said advocates are hopeful lawmakers will consider them next year.

The state’s jails remain among the deadliest in the country, with at least 91 people losing their lives while incarcerated in the past few years.

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, jail bills cost counties $45 million in 2022.

Nationwide, long sentences have led to growth in the number of older people behind bars.

Whitaker pointed out that ‘Second Look’ legislation could help the state avoid turning its prisons into nursing homes, and said the number of elderly people in prison has tripled in the past two decades.

“In 2019, West Virginia had to open a dementia unit in one of its prisons,” said Whitaker. “There are hospice units across multiple prisons. And experts predict that this is just only going to get worse.”

Whitaker added that ‘Second Look’ policies also offer a way to correct past racial injustice in the criminal legal system.

Black people incarcerated in West Virginia are four times more likely than white people to be serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole, and five times as likely to be serving a life-without-parole sentence.