It is vitally important that we ensure the fair and even application of justice for all people in the commonwealth, regardless of socio-economic status, gender, class and race. That is why Gov. Ralph Northam has declared May as Second Chance Month in the commonwealth.

From our sentencing guidelines to our public defender offices, educational programs in jails and prisons to the re-entry process, we understand the significant impact that our policies have on people in the criminal justice system and on our communities. In recognition of Second Chance Month, it is timely to reflect on our past work and commit to future criminal justice reform initiatives as we work toward a safer and more equitable Virginia.

We are proud that Virginia’s state-run prisons have maintained the lowest recidivism rate in the country for the third year in a row. This is largely due to the dedication of our correctional officers and our continued commitment to innovative programs and re-entry efforts that focus on factors such as mental health and substance use disorders. This year, Gov. Northam funded an expansion of Virginia Department of Correction’s (DOC) Community Corrections Alternative Program. This program allows judges in criminal cases to choose an alternative sentencing option, which includes cognitive behavioral treatment, workforce development and life skills training, and intensive substance abuse programming.

These reentry efforts are critical because each year, nearly 13,000 individuals are released from our DOC facilities and return to our communities. Once people have repaid their debt to society and served their sentences, we must enable them to return to the community, not as second-class citizens, but as full participants in society. That’s why the Northam administration continues to work to restore the rights of individuals who have paid their debts to society.

Nearly 14,000 people so far have had their rights restored under the Northam administration. When we help formerly incarcerated people seek housing, employment and health care upon release, we increase their chances of successfully participating in society. This helps prevent future crime and keeps communities safer.

Unfortunately, our local jails have become some of the largest mental health institutions in the state. The governor and General Assembly have responded by requiring the development of uniform, statewide mental health standards for all Virginia jails, and by funding more mental health services. Because jails are operated by local governments, statewide mental health standards will help create a uniform approach to mental health care for people in jails.

Additionally, Gov. Northam provided funding for local jails to support mental health pilot programs administered by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. In 2017, pilot sites screened nearly 3,000 inmates, developed treatment plans, provided therapy services and trained staff on interacting with inmates who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. These programs also help facilitate connections to community mental health resources after inmates are released.

Over the past several years, we have holistically transformed our Department of Juvenile Justice. Through population reduction in our Juvenile Correctional Center, reformed services and new reentry initiatives, we have had substantially improved outcomes. Virginia has now reached all-time lows in the numbers of new cases coming into the system, new probation cases and the number of youths in local detention centers. The number of youths in our state Juvenile Correctional Center has fallen from 654 in July 2013 to 203 in January 2019, a 69% decline. We continue to seek new ways to provide support to youths in the juvenile facility and promote a safe and rehabilitative environment.

I will be traveling around the state this month and coming months, participating in community events and conversations to hear from Virginians about the challenges they face and opportunities for us to improve. We look forward to engaging in a meaningful dialogue and working on these issues together.

As we recognize Second Chance Month, I feel confident that Virginia is moving toward a more equitable criminal justice system. We successfully raised the felony larceny threshold to $500 after decades of advocacy, and have ended the policy of suspending driving privileges for individuals who have unpaid fines and fees unrelated to driving, which will benefit hundreds of thousands of Virginians. In addition, Gov. Northam has announced that he will not sign another mandatory minimum sentence bill during his term as governor.

While these reforms are substantial, there always is more work to be done. We are excited to engage with community members and facilitate discussions about equitable policies and improving access to resources for the people who are returning to their communities after incarceration.

Brian J. Moran is Virginia secretary of public safety and homeland security. Contact him at public.safety@governor.virginia.gov.

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