Reentry Poses Challenges for West Virginians’ Life After Prison

Nadia Ramlagan

West Virginians released from prison are not allowed to vote until their parole or probation period is over and their sentence is complete.

Since people can be placed on parole in some cases for up to ten years for low-level offenses, criminal justice advocates said they are effectively barred from civic participation, even as they get jobs and resume community life.

Ashley Omps, criminal justice advocate for the group West Virginia Family of Convicted People, said Senate Bill 235, which restores the right to vote upon physical release from prison, would streamline the process of helping more people become part of their communities.

“If you are reintegrated back out into society, after serving your sentence, probation and parole, you’re paying taxes and working, and you’re technically a part of society again,” Omps asserted. “We just feel like it’s your right to be able to vote.”

The state also is taking action to reduce its prison population. Lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 232, which would help divert people with serious mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance use disorders from incarceration, and into appropriate community behavioral-health settings. The bill creates a statewide study group to develop recommendations.

Kenny Matthews, criminal justice advocate for the American Friends Service Committee, said another tool to reduce the number of people in prison is known as earned compliance credit. It is a system which creates “credits” or incentives based on earning a college degree, or other positive actions after prison, resulting in reduced supervision time.

West Virginia lawmakers are considering it, in House Bill 3445, which Matthews argued would benefit communities.

“So, you have the ability to incentivize people to do what’s right and what they should do, as well as a mechanism to reduce the caseload and the incarceration rate,” Matthews explained.

Research shows states like Maryland and New York have saved money by implementing earned compliance credits.