(As originally published in The Virginian-Pilot on August 30, 2015.)
by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia and William Ruger, Vice President for Research at the Charles Koch Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation
The ACLU of Virginia and the Charles Koch Institute are working together to spur conversation about needed criminal justice reforms in Virginia - reforms that keep communities safe and hold lawbreakers accountable.
We believe the Commonwealth's Commission on Parole Review, made up of a bipartisan group of legislators, law enforcement officials, and criminal justice experts, represents a unique opportunity to explore how the commonwealth can enhance public safety, cut costs and embrace human dignity by making smarter, more effective choices about how we deal with crime.
The commission is responsible for investigating the impact of 1990s-era legal changes on public safety, the state's resources, and society at large.
During its last meeting, on Thursday, the commission heard a presentation about why it should look beyond just the issue of parole and work toward reforms that would improve the lives of all Virginians.
For Virginia to join the growing list of states that have embraced smart justice reforms, the commission must also investigate the public safety and financial costs of using a criminal justice system to address addiction and mental illness, as well as laws that unnecessarily lead many Virginians into the justice system in the first place and make it more difficult for individuals to re-enter their communities once released. The underlying causes of why our criminal justice system harms some communities more harshly than others also must be studied.
The need for reform in Virginia is clear. Based on a 2014 report by the Justice Policy Institute, Virginia's prison population has undergone a massive expansion, increasing more than 700 percent in the last few decades.
As might be expected, Virginia's swollen correctional system carries a hefty price tag: more than $1 billion per year.
In other words, Virginia taxpayers spend upwards of $27,000 annually on each inmate, substantially higher than a decade ago. But, while the commonwealth has been spending more tax dollars to keep more people in jails and prisons longer, there is little evidence that the increase in incarceration is making us or our communities safer.
Long sentences do not deter crime - the likelihood of getting caught does. Nor do lengthy sentences necessarily make felons less likely to reoffend when they get out.
So while we want to hold criminals accountable for their actions, we must do so in a way that actually promotes public safety rather than simply locking them up for extended periods of time.
Dollars and cents are only a part of the deeper human and social costs that come with a flawed criminal justice system. Oversentencing (when punishments are grossly disproportionate to the crime), is a prime example of how an excessively tough-on-crime approach disrespects the dignity of those who make mistakes and are caught up in the system. And it only increases lost opportunities for those individuals and the burden faced by their families and communities.
Unfortunately, current sentencing laws provide few other options. A survey by the Senate Finance Committee of prosecutors, judges and public defenders found that "alternatives to incarceration for lower-risk, nonviolent offenders are not sufficiently available, especially for those with mental health or substance abuse problems."
There is a better way. If we provide alternatives for those who pose a minimal risk to society, we may be able to make our communities safer, while reducing overall costs by avoiding imprisonment.
Research has also shown that Virginia's criminal justice system impacts some communities more than others.
African Americans make up 19 percent of Virginia's population, but they comprise more than 60 percent of its prison population.
And, while we work to ensure that the system is effective and just going forward, we also need to address the reality confronting those already in the system.
Under the current legal regime, we make it more difficult for individuals convicted of crimes to gain employment, exercise their civil rights and find a home - factors important to reducing recidivism. Our laws should ensure that all Virginians are judged on their merit and not their mistakes.
We call on others to join us in supporting the commission's work to develop concrete policy reforms that will reduce crime, cut costs and build a more just Virginia.
We believe we can make better use of scarce taxpayer dollars by shifting away from incarceration as the "one size fits all" solution. Asking for criminal justice reform is not a call to go soft on crime. It is a plea for us to get smarter about how we deal with it.
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