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WV Bills Target Driver's License Suspensions, Prison Overcrowding

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Reform advocates in West Virginia are backing a bill to ease overcrowding in regional jails. (Adobe stock)
Reform advocates in West Virginia are backing a bill to ease overcrowding in regional jails. (Adobe stock)
 By Diane Bernard - Producer, Contact
February 10, 2020

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Supporters of criminal justice reform in West Virginia say two bills under consideration would ease overcrowding in jails and make re-entry into the workforce easier.

One bill would end driver's license suspensions over court costs and unpaid fines. Brittney Myers is in a recovery program in Charleston after being incarcerated on drug charges. Her license was suspended when she couldn't pay thousands of dollars in court fees from her arrest.

She said the bill would help people like her get back on their feet.

"I have four kids that live with my mother, and I would be able to go to school functions and to be able to further my recovery and look for jobs," Myers said. "Because I want to be a drug recovery coach at the drug court, but I'd have to have a vehicle to go to and from work because we don't have buses down there."

If passed, West Virginia would join six other states that stopped suspending driver's licenses because of unpaid debt. Studies show the unpaid-fees rule disproportionately impacts the impoverished and people of color.

Another reform bill in the Mountain State aims to reduce overcrowding in regional jails. House Bill 2419 would require the release of folks on a personal-recognizance bond while they await trial for some nonviolent crimes, according to Lida Shepherd, program director with the West Virginia Economic Justice Project. She said that means people who can't afford bail for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession wouldn't have to wait in jail until trial.

"There is tremendous overcrowding in the majority of our jails, and this would be a step in the right direction towards relieving some of that strain," Shepherd said. "And it would move us away from a money bail system that really discriminates against poor people."

Last year, a similar bill died in the state Senate. This year's bill passed the House last week and is waiting for Senate approval. West Virginia's regional jails are almost 20% over capacity, according to the state's Division of Corrections.

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