A win for economic justice in West Virginia

State legislators tried to pass a range of bills that would harm low-income people. Community members stopped that from happening.

Anyone following the 2024 legislative session in West Virginia knows that a collective sigh of relief has been sighed since it ended. For months, AFSC, partners, and community members worked hard to advocate on a range of issues impacting low-income people in our communities. With the deck stacked high against us in a very conservative climate, we managed to stop a long list of very harmful bills from becoming law.   

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how we made that happen. It’s one example of how with dedicated people, well-timed strategies, and just a bit of luck, good things can happen (and bad things can be stopped).  

Advocating for second chances for people in prison  

This legislative session, one victory we celebrated was securing a sponsor for a “second look” sentencing bill. The bill would give judges the power to reconsider a person’s lengthy prison sentence if the person was sentenced when they were under 25 years old.  

Danny Hale, an advocate whom AFSC has worked with since 2020, played a major role in securing that sponsorship from Sen. Jack Woodrum. When they met, Danny shared with him his personal story. Danny received a long prison sentence when he was just 18 years old. He wasn’t able to raise his daughter at a critical time when she was young and her mom was struggling with a substance use disorder. Danny reflected on how much he had changed over 10 years in prison, what he accomplished while incarcerated, and how he was a different person than he was when he was 18.   

He told Sen. Woodrum that the possibility of a second look would boost morale for people in prison, give them a sense of hope, incentivize good behavior, and thereby improve conditions for people incarcerated.  

At the end of the meeting, Sen. Woodrum shook Danny’s hand, thanked him, and told him, “I’m sorry you were locked up for so long.” In that moment, Danny was seen not for the offense he had committed, but for who he is today—a great dad, an advocate for people in recovery, and a cherished member of our community.  

The following week Sen. Woodrum introduced the second look bill (SB 736). It was the first step in what will likely be a long journey. We look forward to continuing our push for its passage next year.   

Defending SNAP for people who need it 

Every year, we face more threats to social safety net programs. This year, legislators introduced SB 562, a sweeping attack on people receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) program. The bill would have subjected thousands of low-income people to a mandatory employment and training program to get SNAP benefits. The bill was being pushed by the Foundation for Government Accountability, an out-of-state entity that cranks out all kinds of nefarious schemes to take food and health care away from people. 

Our Food for All coalition ultimately succeeded in stopping this bill by making strategic alliances with various interest groups like retailers, keeping the issue in the media, and coordinating constituent meetings with key legislators.  

We pointed out that if we want more people in the workforce, taking food away was not the answer. Instead, this bill was mean-spirited, contrary to evidence, and would result in fewer federal dollars flowing through local economies.  

We got our message across. Although the bill passed the Senate, it was never taken up by the House.  

Protecting West Virginians from more of the failed war on drugs 


AFSC's Kenny Matthews testifies in front of the House Judiciary Committee.

We defeated two bills that would have further expanded the state’s jail population.  

One was SB 154, which we not-so-affectionately called the “drug penalty death star.” Among other bad ideas, it would have tripled penalties for certain drug offenses and made simple possession a felony.   

AFSC’s Kenny Matthews and Joanna Vance played key roles in advocating against the bill. They talked to every House Judiciary member about how the bill would saddle a lot more people with felony convictions and lock up thousands more people in dangerous and deadly jails.  

Kenny testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee. He shared his personal experience of getting prescribed oxycontin following a football injury, which later led to substance use disorder (SUD) and incarceration. His testimony prompted committee members to ask thoughtful questions about evidence-based strategies for recovery from SUD, helping them conclude that SB 154 would not work.  Shortly after, we got word that the committee chair decided to “send the bill to a study”—effectively killing the bill. 

A second terrible bill would have prohibited magistrates from granting personal recognizance bonds for people charged with felonies. Personal recognizance bonds allow people to be released while they await their trial date, without having to “make bail”—or provide money or surety bond, often via a bail bondsman. In West Virginia, over half of the jail population is made up of people who have not been convicted of any crime but more often than not, are too poor to afford bail.  

To stop SB 725, we worked closely with the Criminal Law Reform coalition, including public defenders. We also presented an analysis of bail data in counties throughout the state, which showed that plenty of county magistrates were using personal recognizance bonds for felony defendants. We leveraged relationships with county officials, magistrates, and conservative allies to generate opposition to the bill.   

Ultimately, The House Judiciary committee roundly voted against SB 725. 

Briefly for the record 

We also defeated credible threats to reinstate the death penalty, halted a bill that would weaken child labor laws, and delayed action on a bill that would have worsened disparities in school discipline in the K-6 student population (read my take on SB 614 in the Charleston Gazette). Because we delayed action on SB 614, it did not pass during the regular session—a reminder that even little successes like these have the potential to change the trajectory of a bill. We’re now preparing for a version of SB 614 to come up again when the legislature convenes for a special session in May.  

Our results in this legislative session demonstrate that even in a challenging political environment, every action we take helps influence the discourse about an issue—and can change the outcome. Every conversation, be it with a legislator or community member, helps strengthen relationships and forge new alliances. While we can never know for sure what the next threat will be, we are better prepared to respond. And when a window of opportunity opens when we can have an impact, we will be all the more ready.