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WV Groups See Bill as Politicizing Parole Hearings

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To relieve overcrowding, a West Virginia bill would help inmates get access to classes required for reentry before, rather than after, parole starts. (Adobe stock)
To relieve overcrowding, a West Virginia bill would help inmates get access to classes required for reentry before, rather than after, parole starts. (Adobe stock)
 By Diane Bernard - Producer, Contact
March 25, 2021

CHARLESTON, W.V. -- Criminal-justice advocates in West Virginia urged lawmakers to oppose a new bill they say would politicize parole hearings, making it more difficult for incarcerated people to get a fair review.

House Bill 2747 would put the Department of Homeland Security in charge of the state parole board's hearing office and require the chair of that board be an attorney, serving directly under the governor.

Beverly Sharp, director of reentry initiatives for the West Virginia Council of Churches, said the chair would no longer be a full-time position and someone without experience in corrections could be chosen for the post as a political appointment.

"If you politicize even more, these positions, and you serve at the will and pleasure of the governor, it makes it extremely difficult for individuals to assess the case based on merit as opposed to what's the current political climate," Sharp contended.

She noted the bill is having a reading today in the House Judiciary Committee, and stands a good chance of passing with Republican support.

The bill is one of two measures introduced this session aimed at changing parole policy.

Prison reform groups support House Bill 3078, which would allow inmates to complete required classes while on parole instead of beforehand.

Eli Baumwell, policy director for the ACLU of West Virginia, said access to these classes, which fill up quickly and cover drug rehabilitation and life skills, are a barrier to reentry and one reason the state's prisons are overcrowded.

"It's going to reduce the overpopulation, and that has a whole bunch of good downstream effects," Baumwell asserted. "It helps to encourage reentry, and it goes back to a basic ACLU principle, which is that we over-rely on our incarceral system anyway, and we need to start looking at ways that we can be promoting rehabilitation."

As of January, more than 5,700 people were incarcerated in West Virginia's regional jails, which only have beds for 4,265 inmates, according to state data.

House Bill 3078 passed the House last week by a vote of 93-6. It's also expected to pass the Senate with bipartisan support.

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