Now that the ballots have been counted and the citizens of the commonwealth have spoken, we need Gov.-elect McAuliffe and our elected officials to focus on revamping our criminal justice system. Moving forward, efforts must be made to make the system more effective, less costly, and fairer — restoring faith in the system so that it can work for all Virginians.
The closeness of the election reminds us that even the small steps Gov. McDonnell took to re-enfranchise a few people who lost the right to vote because of felony convictions do matter. But a new policy brief from the Justice Policy Institute — a Washington-based think tank — shows that we still have an expensive and ineffective criminal justice system that doesn’t work well, is riddled with unfairness, undermines our faith in the system and prevents hundreds of thousands of people from moving on to a crime-free life. As a faith leader, I often must remind others about redemption. That is key to becoming a productive member of society.
In “Virginia’s Justice System: Expensive, Ineffective and Unfair,” JPI shows that Virginians collectively spend $3 billion per year on an expensive criminal justice system that arrests too many people for drug crimes — responding to what is often a public health issue with a jail cell instead of more effective and less costly treatment.
In 2011 alone, Virginia spent more than $94 million arresting people for drug offenses. Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington state recently have changed laws, policies and practices that prioritize drug law enforcement. JPI found that arresting more and more people for drug crimes has had no effect on reducing drug use, with drug use on the rise here in recent years.
McDonnell’s important but small steps to re-enfranchise some ex-prisoners aside, 7 percent of adult Virginians — and 20 percent of African-American adults — still have a criminal record. And along with bars on voting, a felony conviction can preclude one from certain jobs in an already tough economy. If we are serious about giving our citizens a second chance, we have to eliminate barriers to people being able to work, playing a role in their families, being parents and contributing to our community. Tasked with spreading the gospel, I am moved to remind our parishioners — and our policymakers — that restorative justice and redemption work. It is written in Matthew 6:12, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” If we want mercy and grace for ourselves, we have to be willing to extend it to others.
Virginia’s criminal justice policies affect all of us, but how the system works for African-Americans undermines our faith in the justice system. African-Americans constitute roughly 20 percent of the adult population, but are nearly half of all Virginians who are arrested, and more than six in 10 people in prison. Research shows that whites and African-Americans have similar rates of drug use, but African-Americans bear the brunt of our drug laws.
I know that we can restore faith in this system: Virginia can have a fairer, more effective and less costly system that will free up funds for better ways to reduce crime and build communities. And JPI’s research points to some ways we can get started.
First, we have to look at our sentencing practices. Long sentences for less serious crimes only drive up costs and have little public safety impact. Small, sensible changes to these laws can make a big difference. For example, changing the financial threshold amount that distinguishes larceny from grand larceny from $200 to $600 could save the state approximately $22.5 million over six years.
Second, we have to take another look at Virginia laws that eliminated parole, and our “truth-in-sentencing” statutes. We know most people in prison in Virginia are coming back to our community at some point. We should reform the system, improve parole standards and expectations, and create incentives so that before people leave prison, they can participate in treatment and other programs to prepare them to return home, and allow them to earn time off their sentence. By creating opportunities to reduce sentences for those who have shown they are ready for a second chance, we can help formerly incarcerated people transition to lives beyond crime.
Third, we have to change our drug policies. We should reduce our reliance on arresting, jailing and incarcerating people with a drug problem, and redirect those resources to less expensive and more effective ways to address people’s needs. By reinvesting some of what we are spending on the criminal justice system to support our education and treatment systems, we will have critical impact on reducing the cycle of crime, and build our workforce.
Finally, as long as we see such deep racial disparities in arrests and incarceration, large portions of our community will lose faith that the public safety system can work for them. We need to focus on why we are seeing such inequities in the justice system, and follow the lead of other states that are reviewing laws that generate such unfairness.
By refocusing the system on less expensive, more effective and fairer policies, we can give more Virginians a second chance to move past crime, and restore faith in the commonwealth’s ability to solve our public safety and community development challenges.
The Rev. Emory Berry Jr. is the board chairman of Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration and senior pastor of Fourth Baptist Church in Richmond. He can be reached at email@example.com or (804) 912-3188.