Americans for Prosperity Press Release

Oppose Senate Bill 547

Mar 3, 2023 by AFP

On behalf of Americans for Prosperity West Virginia, I urge you to oppose and Senate Bill 547, Increasing penalties for drug possession and updating list of offenses. This vote may be recorded in our 2023 session legislative scorecard.

Over the last 30 years, the number of incarcerated West Virginians has grown nearly five-fold despite a decline in the state’s population over the same period. From 2010 to 2020, West

Virginia was one of only four states to increase its incarceration rate and there are nearly 3,000 more people in jail or prison today than a decade ago. This steep increase is not due to rising crime rates in West Virginia, but by policy choices to increase punishments and to use imprisonment as a response to and deterrence of crime.

The U.S. spends roughly $46 billion each year to enforce drug prohibition, yet data shows that drug use fluctuations have no consistent response to enforcement efforts. As lawmakers look at policies that criminalize addiction, those experiencing addiction still lack adequate access to treatment. According to the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, less than 10 percent of those with substance use disorders are able to access rehabilitation. West Virginia is one of the states with the fewest amount of people receiving treatment for substance abuse and one of highest for individuals suffering from substance abuse.

Senate Bill 547 would be a gigantic step in the wrong direction for West Virginia, with far-reaching negative impacts on both our criminal justice system and state budget. This bill would result in mandated prison sentences for anyone convicted of drug crimes and drastically increase our state’s prison population. On top of these mandatory sentences, it creates a new felony for simple possession, and triples the sentences for those convicted of felony drug crimes. In short, this bill would cost West Virginians a fortune but will not help to deter any of the behavior or actions it wishes to address.

Instead of embracing and continuing this failed overcriminalization approach to repairing families, fighting addiction, and reducing crime, we need to develop a bottom-up approach to the drug crisis that ends its reliance on big government. Forcing individuals to serve sentences that don’t match the severity of their crime benefits no one—it strains taxpayer resources and unjustly sentences individuals, especially those who commit low-level, nonviolent offenses. The criminal justice system is ill-equipped to handle addiction issues. On top of that, being branded with a criminal record makes it that much harder for formerly incarcerated West Virginians who may be fighting addiction to successfully re-enter society.

Creating more felonies and growing the state’s prison population by locking up West Virginians that have substance abuse problems is an enormous drain on the state’s economy and taxpayers, causes irreparable damage to our families and communities, and does nothing to make us safer.

Our response to drug use should instead be based on community-centric rehabilitative programs proven to work. Treatment and diversionary programs and right-sizing government involvement can help us tackle the drug crisis without needlessly ruining families and lives.

It is for these reasons we ask you to oppose SB 547.