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WV Groups See Criminal Reform Bill as Regression to ‘War on Drugs’

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Thursday, March 11, 2021   

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Criminal-justice advocates are urging West Virginia lawmakers to oppose a bill heading to the Senate that would add up to 10 years of extended supervision for certain drug offenders, even after they've served all their prison and parole time.

House Bill 2257 would also send those offenders back to prison for up to 10 years for any violation of the supervision, including minor infractions such as a speeding ticket.

Kenneth Matthews, a peer recovery coach from Dunbar who served five years for two drug crimes, understands the need to solve West Virginia's substance-abuse crisis.

But he thinks more supervision is a step backwards into what he calls failed "War on Drugs" policies of the 1990s, and would result in more drug users being locked up in the state's overcrowded jails and prisons.

"Incarceration or long periods of probation or supervision hasn't been shown to aid in somebody's reintegrating into society or to help somebody get the help that they need to avoid those permanent behaviors," Matthews argued.

Supporters of the bill say it would help keep drug pushers from peddling in West Virginia communities.

It passed the House by a vote of 68 to 29, with most Democrats opposing it.

Matthews pointed out the bill targets folks with second drug offenses for distribution of heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl, and he would have been subjected to it.

He thinks it added a punishment on top of a punishment. Not only does the bill mean a loss of liberty, he noted, but also financial hardship since the supervision involves paying more fees.

"You have someone that's already feeling like they're barely making it, and you want to compound the issue by forcing them to pay more out," Matthews explained. "And if they can't, a lot of times it falls on the families."

Matthews believes officials should look to funding more re-entry programs as a more effective way to help with the state's drug problems.

House Bill 2257 would impact 86% of people incarcerated for drug offenses, according to data from the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation's annual report.


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