Virginia’s Justice System is Not ‘Working’

by Daniel A. Rosen |

In early January, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam proposed three modest changes to the state’s criminal laws in advance of the Assembly’s 2020 legislative session. All three common-sense reforms were passed and signed into law, though not without significant friction and controversy. The more serious justice reforms proposed during this Assembly session never even got a real hearing; many died in Committee or were tabled until next year.

The changes passed weren’t overly ambitious, but were a good start: decriminalization of simple marijuana possession, making it a civil offense punishable by a small fine; raising the felony larceny threshold to the more common $1000 standard now prevalent in most states; and reducing the number of offenses that mandate driver’s license suspensions.

Bills that failed included: the reinstatement of parole, which was banished in the 1990s; revisions to allow inmates to earn more good time credits for good behavior or participation in programs; geriatric parole for those over 50 who’ve been locked up for decades; and sentencing reform to give juries more of a say in determining leniency after conviction.

Both the reforms that passed and those that didn’t faced pushback from Republicans, who pointed to the state’s low crime and recidivism rates as proof that the current criminal justice system is “working.” Their attitude seemed to be: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But it is badly broken, in fact, for the citizens and families caught up in it, in far greater numbers than makes sense. Republican Assembly members need to be less afraid of being called ‘soft on crime’ and more afraid of what Virginia’s current system is doing to the Commonwealth’s budget and to its families.

The public safety budget competes annually with the health care and education budgets for most of Virginians’ tax dollars. So, every penny spent locking up weed smokers or people who drove to the grocery store to feed their family while on a suspended license, is money not spent on your children’s schooling. At a time when Virginia’s schools are falling apart, these dollars matter.

Virginia’s jails are full of low-level offenders caught up in the three types of charges Northam championed for reform, and it’s devouring the state budget. They’re locked up unnecessarily for months awaiting hearings because they can’t afford as little as a few hundred dollars in bail costs, while their families try to pick up the pieces in child care, rent or mortgage expenses, and other daily traumas that send ever more people into social safety nets at taxpayer expense.

Worse, when many of them take the inevitable plea offer of a couple years prison sentence, they’ll clog up the overburdened state corrections system to the average tune of thirty thousand dollars a year each in taxpayer-funded support. Once they’re sent to the Department of Corrections, inmates are warehoused in overcrowded and understaffed facilities that are falling apart from neglect, where they’ll get little in the way of tools to improve their lives upon release. And older, unwell inmates often cost taxpayers as much as five times the average.

Northam deserves credit for championing the modest reforms that passed. Taken together, they will greatly reduce the population of non-violent offenders choking Virginia’s local and state corrections systems. You’d be astounded at the number of people you meet in a Virginia jail there for doing nothing more than driving on a suspended license, or felony larceny charges that would have been labeled misdemeanor petty thefts in most other jurisdictions.

As for grand larceny – maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to meet a guy like Chuck, as I did. A 68-year-old grandfather with heart trouble, and a deeply religious man, Chuck nevertheless found himself without a place to stay one weekend. He took a few hotel vouchers from a desk in the church he volunteered at, worth about three hundred dollars. Enough, under the law at the time, to be charged with felony grand larceny and sentenced to three years behind bars, despite that same church’s attempt to get the charges dismissed.

I spent time with Chuck in the Fairfax jail and again in state prison, and he mentored me and other inmates, made us better people for knowing him. He’s about the last person that needed to be there. But I’ve often thought to myself over the past four years: “half these people don’t belong here.” And the half who prompted that thought were usually there for one of the reasons that Northam and the Assembly have now been successful in eliminating. The organization #Cut50 is working to make that easily-understood idea – that fully half the people behind bars probably don’t belong there – a reality across the nation.

Now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and the reform process has begun, perhaps we can begin to discuss more substantive reforms. Both those tabled by the Assembly until next year, and broader ones needed to address the decaying roots at the foundation of Virginia’s justice system: people sentenced to prison time for ‘technical’ parole and probation violations; drug addicts who need treatment instead of incarceration; meaningful bail reform; the abolition of parole or meaningful good time credits; and older offenders serving astonishingly long sentences.

Virginia will have to contend with all of these issues to effect real change in the public safety enterprise over time. The passage of these three bills were a good start. Perhaps now it’s time to look forward to 2021 and start thinking about the bigger picture, and beginning to address justice reform in the Commonwealth in a more humane and thoughtful manner.

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