Criminal justice reform a priority for Quad-State

With prisons overcrowded and widespread heroin use plaguing the region, legislators from four states met Friday to share ideas and brainstorm solutions.

The 27th Annual Quad-State Legislative Conference, which brings lawmakers from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia together, took place at Penn State University’s Mont Alto Campus.

Delegate David LaRock, R-Va.; Sen. Charles Trump, R-W.Va.; Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Pa.; and Sen. Mike Hough, R-Md., composed the panel for the first discussion of the day, regarding criminal justice reform.

LaRock said legislators in Virginia are getting involved with the Faith and Justice Fellowship, a nondenominational, faith-based program that works with inmates. LaRock said the state governments of Alabama, Illinois, North Carolina, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin are also looking into the Faith and Justice Fellowship.

LaRock said his state is also focusing on reducing the number of incidents in schools that are reported to law enforcement.

“Virginia leads the nation in a lot of things, but we are No. 1 in incidents in schools being reported to police,” he said. “One of the things (the legislature) proposed was changing the standards of reporting. Most of the incidents are for ‘disorderly conduct,’ and a lot of things fall into that category. The bill we proposed would allow school administrators to use their discretion instead of reporting it to the police right away.”

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently restored the voting rights of convicted felons, which LaRock said “has unintended consequences.”

“The governor is trying to take the higher ground, but he probably set us back,” he added.

Trump said the overcrowded prison system in West Virginia is one of the biggest problems in the justice system. He said the state’s budget crisis also puts a damper on anything that can be done, since funding is limited.

Trump also discussed the heroin problem in West Virginia, and said penalties for serious drug offenses have been increased.

“There’s bipartisan recognition that we need a treatment or rehab center, and hats off to Berkeley County and the City of Martinsburg for the work they’re doing,” Trump said. “The Eastern Panhandle has serious drug issues, but it’s not the only part of West Virginia that has them. There’s an influx of drugs into western West Virginia from Ohio. We need heavier sentences for dealers bringing drugs into West Virginia.”

Trump said drug courts are another criminal justice initiative that seem to be working well in the state. He said juvenile drug courts, in particular, keep youth from being incarcerated.

Vereb said he wants to see a more intense focus on drug courts in Pennsylvania, as well as getting people who are in jail into the workforce.

“I’ve talked to some people at the local prison. Some of them have no desire or no drive to work and be productive. There are other people who are dying to get back to work and contribute to society, but they can’t because they have a criminal record,” he said. “We need to prepare people for post-incarceration life.”

Vereb added that while drug possession is considered a nonviolent offense, “heroin is a violent chemical that destroys lives.” He said the Drug Enforcement Agency tested the heroin sold in Philadelphia and declared it “the purest heroin in the country.”

In Maryland, Hough said there is a similar faith-based program in prisons, like the one LaRock discussed in Virginia. Hough said he favors treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues over incarceration.

“Heroin is a problem in Maryland. Last year, seven kids in the schools died of overdoses,” Hough said. “It can take anywhere from 60 days to eight months to get someone into a treatment facility, and we need to shorten that time.”

There are also a few things Hough said didn’t work, like a program that brought inmates and schoolchildren together.

“Despite what you see on TV, those ‘Scared Straight’ programs don’t work,” Hough said. “I thought it would be really cool, but the kids didn’t get anything out of it. I think they actually thought it was cool.”

Journal staff writer Mary Stortstrom can be reached in Martinsburg, West Virginia, at 304-263-8931 ext. 138, or www.twitter.com/mstortstromJN.