Ex offenders Can’t Wait team

End Mass Incarceration

End Mass Incarceration

What WV Can’t Wait For

We’ll build a criminal justice system that repairs–rather than destroys–our communities, and in which our ability to win justice has nothing to do with the size of our bank accounts.


Whose Side We’re On

… and more. Click the links above to read stories from the trail.

What We’re Up Against

Future generations will look back with horror at the way we locked up our people at the turn of the 21st century. West Virginia’s prison population has skyrocketed from 1,575 people in 1990 to 7,100 people in 2017. Everything tells us that our prison population should have decreased over that time: crime is down, arrests per crime are generally flat or falling, and prison admissions per felony case are flat, as is time served. 

But still, more and more of us are being charged by the government for crimes, especially for felonies, than ever before. For Black or poor West Virginians–or for West Virginians suffering from addiction or mental illnesses–the charges and stays are even worse. 

Not only does our prison system outrage the conscience, it also destroys county budgets, and families. And to the victims of crimes, it offers no restitution or compensation–only the cold comfort of vengeance.

Our criminal justice system is bankrupt, morally and fiscally.

Worse, it doesn’t work to solve our state’s most pressing issues. A 50-state analysis, the Pew Charitable Trusts recently found “no statistically significant relationship” between the rate at which states imprison addicted people and three main measures of drug problems (rates of use, overdose deaths, and arrests).  

In a 2010 report to the legislature, the Law Institute stated: “West Virginia imposes some of the longest sentences in the country, sends to and keeps in prison a much higher percentage of convicted defendants rather than placing them in alternative programs, and maintains various practices that result in more people incarcerated for longer periods of time.” (Page 34)

West Virginia not only has “more federal prison cells per capita than any state” in the country, “almost one out of every 200 people in the state is locked up in a federal prison, a rate more than seven times higher than the country as a whole.”   West Virginia also ranks among the top states nationally for juvenile detention rates.

We must demand better.

This is a political choice: The tens of millions of tax dollars we spend on prisons could be spent on schools, roads, and economic development. Under our plan, long prison sentences and prolonged plea negotiations that do nothing for victims will be replaced with more restitution and restorative justice. 

We will be the first state in modern America to build a criminal justice system founded on liberty and justice for all. We will not jail human beings for getting sick and being unable to pay medical debt. We will not lock up the poor while tipping the scales of justice in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Never again will our system serve politicians over victims.

Here’s how we fight for it.

Our Plan

To save millions of taxpayer dollars in prisons, and return our incarceration rate to what they were a generation ago, we will:  

  1. Update the Criminal Code to cut down on prison time. Our prisons are overcrowded with people serving long sentences under an outdated system. We will work with the legislature to impose maximum sentences for certain crimes, encourage concurrent instead of consecutive sentencing, and reduce unnecessary life sentences. We will veto any new offenses or increased penalties.
  2. Eliminate license suspensions. Every year, tens of thousands West Virginians lose their driver’s licenses for reasons unrelated to their driving, such as failing to pay citations or court fees to appear in court. A suspended license makes it harder to find or keep a job and can result in criminal charges with even more fines. We will push for legislation so that license suspension can’t be used as a penalty for not paying fines, or for any offense unrelated to driving.
  3. Save millions of dollars by passing comprehensive bail reform. No person who hasn’t been convicted of a crime should spend another night in jail, simply because they can’t afford bail. We will pass a series of reforms to shift more people to home confinement, ensure swifter justice, and save taxpayers millions.
  4. Sentence people fairly. We will get rid of financial incentives for counties and county prosecutors to push for felony convictions, and require courts to justify their sentencing decisions.
  5. Find out whether our criminal justice system is working. We will track arrest statistics, and other key data from the point of arrest to the point where recidivism can be assessed (three years after release), in every county in the state.

To choose recovery, rehabilitation, and restorative justice, we will :

  1. Renew the mission of the WV Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (WVDOCR) to heal and support the incarcerated person, and the victim. Incarcerated people suffer from some of the most serious traumas and medical issues. In every WVDOCR facility we will place professionals equipped to provide trauma and mental health treatment.  We will set up programs to train and certify inmates to provide peer counseling for trauma, and end restricted or segregated housing (a form of solitary confinement). We will host open houses for community groups, lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges to spend time in prisons with incarcerated people, form Incarcerated People’s Councils at each facility, and seek legislation to completely restore the voting rights of those convicted of felony offenses. We will also work with crime victims and the incarcerated to establish the country’s more ambitious restorative justice initiative, so that crime victims and communities are heard and directly served by the criminal justice system.
  2. Support addiction recovery for incarcerated people. Substance abuse is a direct or indirect cause behind about 85% of prison inmates being in prison, but less than 1% are offered evidence-based addiction treatment. We will ensure that every jail or prison offers medication assisted treatment and other treatment opportunities, with continuity of care plans put in place for soon-to-be-released people.
  3. Help kids impacted by incarceration. Nearly one in 10 WV kids has had an incarcerated parent. Under our administration the WV Department of Corrections would provide free phone calls and visiting programs where children can see and touch their parents. We will also ensure that every child of an incarcerated parent will have access to ongoing mental health services as well as leadership, apprenticeship and educational opportunities (see College for All).
  4. Heal the harmed person. In each prison facility we will offer a Restorative Justice program to serve harmed persons and the incarcerated person responsible. This will include mechanisms for restitution. We will also pilot Restorative Justice courts to divert future offenders from prison and provide healing for victims of crime.
  5. “Ban the Box” and prepare people for for a fair chance at life outside prison. Stable employment is the number one factor in improving someone’s chance of success when they leave prison. But to get stable employment, people first need to meet their basic needs.  We will eliminate crippling criminal justice debts for those leaving prisons and jails, and support a reentry department in every prison to ensure that everyone in re-entry gets a Driver’s License or State ID Card, a voter registration card, a Medical card (and first visit). Re-entry programs (churches, non-profit organizations) will receive payments based on their ability to reduce recidivism (based on the social impact model tried in Minnesota). We will support legislation to issue temporary basic income upon release, fund public defenders to work on expungement, and “ban the box” asking job and college applicants to report whether or not they have a criminal record. We will conduct an audit to eliminate most of the 500+ restrictions that ex-felons currently endure, keeping them from re-integrating into society. All crimes will be eligible for expungement within 1 year and will automatically be cleared after 3 years, unless challenged.
  6. Make every effort to seek and encourage alternatives to incarceration: Family Treatment Courts, Home Confinement, Veterans Courts, and other restorative justice models. We also oppose the creation of an expensive intermediate court, that in aggregate would only serve to protect the interests of the wealthy.
  7. Provide raises, additional training, improved working conditions, and support services for corrections officers.
  8. Legalize cannabis for medical and recreational use. In addition to cannabis legalization, we must also expunge previous cannabis convictions. (See our Legalize Cannabis plan). We also support efforts to gradually move toward decriminalization (starting with mandatory diversion programs) of the use of other controlled substances as ample services are made available.
  9. Make sure parole and probation support rehabilitation.  We’ll invest in parole officer training, incentivize parole officers based on how their clients do, create a series of alternatives to revocation for technical violations, and cap probation periods, all of which have been shown to reduce recidivism.

To achieve a justice system that is blind to race and class, we will: 

  1. Conduct a full audit of state code, and end practices that limit the ability of citizens to challenge corporate power in court
  2. End civil asset forfeiture. West Virginia has some of the worst laws in the country relating to civil asset forfeiture. Under current law, police can seize your possessions if they claim to suspect they’re related to a crime. They can then keep or sell your property, even if you were never arrested or even convicted. Giving police a profit motive to confiscate people’s property is a bad idea, and has no place in our state. We will push for legislation to ban civil asset forfeiture unless the owner is actually convicted of a crime, to protect innocent third party property owners, and to prevent police departments or prosecutors from keeping the proceeds.
  3. Divert people towards mental health services and away from police encounters.  People with undiagnosed mental illnesses are 16 times more likely than the average person to be killed in an encounter with police. And those enduring generations of poverty, racism, or sexual violence are more likely to suffer from trauma. We will incentivize local police departments to hire mental health professionals who are trained to respond to mental health crises. It’s the right thing to do, and will also save money by keeping people out of hospitals and jails. We will also equip every officer with a body camera.
  4. Root out racism and discrimination, at every level. West Virginia will invest millions of dollars per year to expose and end racism and discrimination, at every level. Research tells us that Americans commit crimes at roughly the same rate–rich or poor, Black or white. But Black folks are 10 times more likely to go to prison. In fact, “you’re much better off in our justice system if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” All state courthouses and police stations will be required to track rates of arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration, by race. Jurisdictions that demonstrate persistent bias will be given technical assistance to reverse those trends, and lose access to state funding if they fail to address it. See our full plan to Fight Discrimination and Racism.
  5. Shift state police officers toward corporate criminals and corrupt politicians, and away from people with substance use disorder. See our plan to address political corruption.
  6. Pilot and expand programs that deploy social workers as emergency responders in special cases. Support efforts to encourage court watchers and other forms of civilian review.
  7. End the Private Prison Industrial Complex by prohibiting the privatization of any services related to policing or incarceration.
  8. Start a Corporate Crime and Political Corruption divisions in the West Virginia State Police – to shift law enforcement resources toward the people who are committing the most devastating crimes in our system. (See our full plan.)
  9. Make the WV State Police a national model for training.  We will require State Police to complete training on de-escalation, mental health, trauma, substance use disorders, and how to work with leaders within their own community. We will require all State Troopers in general enforcement to wear body cameras, and create a way for people to give feedback through a real-time app after encounters with law enforcement. Summarily records of the results will be publicly available.

How We Pay For It

This will save far more than it costs. Our aim is to reduce incarceration by at least 75 percent over the next 10 years, which will leave more work to be done… but will save roughly $50 million annually at adult correctional facilities (and additional funds in juvenile corrections–see also the Protect Our Children plan).

In the meantime, those savings will be used to help fund:

  • Re-entry services;
  • Raises, training, and support for corrections workers;
  • Funding for training and implementation of restorative justice practices.

Every one of our New Deal plans was written by West Virginians.

  • Our volunteers asked 11,000 of their neighbors, “What would you do if you were Governor?”
  • Our candidates attended 197 Town Halls, taking notes in community centers, church basements, union halls, and small businesses.
  • Educators met after work to start sketching out their perfect school.
  • Nurses traded ideas on the picket line.
  • Our county and constituency captains ratified a first platform in the fall of 2019 and updated it in the spring of 2020 to reflect the current pandemic.

But the legacy of this New Deal dates back to John Brown and Mother Jones, to the United Mine Workers of America and the suffragettes, to the Poor People’s Movement and the CIO.

No one politician or slate of candidates can win this plan alone. We need you.

If you have an idea for how to make this plan stronger, or if you would like to lend a hand to win it, contact our candidate for Governor Stephen Smith at stephen@wvcantwait.com.


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Join the Movement

We have hundreds of volunteers in every corner of the state, and a growing slate of candidates who will need our help in 2022. It will take 1,000 leaders not 1 to win a West Virginia that works for all of us.