Highlights from Billion Dollar Divide: Virginia’s Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge

by Frank Knaack, ACLU of Virginia Director of Public Policy and Communications

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) is out with a great new report, and its findings should serve as a wake up call to Virginia’s lawmakers:

-          1 billion dollars – The projected corrections budget by 2015 (according to the Executive Budget proposed last December).

-          1 billion dollars – The amount already spent on building new prisons since the 1990s.

-          37,000 – The number of people in the custody of Virginia’s prisons and jails.

-          735% – The increase in Virginia’s incarceration rate since the 1970s.

-          288% – The increase in corrections spending since the 1980s.

-          72% – The percent of those in prison for a drug offense who are African American (even though African Americans make up only 20% of Virginia’s population).

-          450,000+ – The number of Virginians denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction.

-          62% – Percent increase in the time served for people sentenced for property offenses (between 1990 and 2009).

As other states have shown, the massive spending and the “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality are not necessary to make our communities safer.  In fact, “[s]tates like South Carolina, Texas, New York and Maryland have seen their incarceration rates decline and seen their violent crime rates decline as much or more than the Commonwealth, during a time when Virginia’s incarceration rate rose.”

The good news – our General Assembly created this trend and it can reverse it.  Here are just a few things the General Assembly can do to move us in the right direction:

-          Raise the felony larceny threshold

In Virginia, it is grand larceny (a felony offense) if you steal property valued at $200 or more.  The penalty?  It can land you in state prison for between one and twenty years.  That’s right, stealing a $200 pair of shoes can result in a multiple year prison sentence.

How did this happen?  Well, part of the problem is that the General Assembly set the $200 threshold for felony larceny in 1980, when a gallon of gasoline cost 86 cents and iPhones and Air Jordans didn’t exist.  Today, a gallon of gas costs $3.65 and sneakers and phones can cost well over $200.  Twenty-nine states have set their felony larceny threshold at $1000 or more, including Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, and North Carolina, and forty-five states have set their threshold at $500 or more.

Adjusting the threshold would save Virginia taxpayers millions annually.  Larceny convictions accounted for one out of every four individuals incarcerated in 2012, at a cost of approximately $27,000 a year per individual.  In 2008 the Virginia Department of Corrections estimated that just adjusting the threshold to $500 would save taxpayers over 3.5 million dollars in saved prison bed costs in 2013 alone.  Because the number of individuals incarcerated for larceny has increased since 2008 this number is likely larger.  In addition to the incarceration costs, a felony for a low-level offense like theft of an iPhone can destroy a person’s family, chance at ever finding work again, educational prospects, and more, thereby significantly increasing the chance that a person will remain involved in the criminal justice system.  Finally, retail loss specialists have found no evidence to indicate that adjusting the threshold would lead to increased crime.  It’s time for Virginia to take the term “felony” seriously and raise the dollar threshold to an appropriate level.

-          Ban the box

For many Virginians, there is one question on employment applications that makes the difference between being considered for a job and being denied outright.  Employment history?  No.  Educational background?  No.  We’re referring to the criminal history question.  Denying a person’s application without considering their qualifications or rehabilitation is unfair; it prevents people who’ve completed their sentence from getting a fair chance at a fresh start.  Worse yet, this question often ignores a fundamental principle of our justice system – that you are innocent until proven guilty.  That’s right, some employment applications require applicants to disclose incidents even if you were found innocent in court.

The numbers alone should be enough to convince all legislators that the criminal history box on employment applications is discriminatory and should be removed.  As we previously wrote:

Because people of color are disproportionately caught up in our criminal justice system, they will also be disproportionally impacted by questions concerning an applicant’s criminal background.  In addition, banning the box will help make our communities safer.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), more than 650,000 individuals are released from prison every year. To reduce the recidivism rate for these individuals, the DOJ has identified three key elements to successful re-entry into our communities.  One of these key elements is helping these individuals find and keep a job.  Banning the box will better ensure that these individuals have an honest shot at finding employment.  It’s a first step toward reducing recidivism, making our communities safer, and mitigating the impact of a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets communities of color.

-          End felon disenfranchisement

It is estimated that over 450,000 Virginians are barred from exercising their right to vote because of a felony conviction.  Virginia is one of only four states that permanently disenfranchise every individual with a felony conviction.  They tell a certain group of Virginians that they have fewer rights – that they cannot participate in one of the most fundamental aspects of our democracy.  To make matters worse, the disenfranchisement rates in Virginia continue to soar as a result of the increase in the number of criminal offenses now classified as a felony.

These laws are vestiges of the Jim Crow Era, rooted in racism and fear, and continue to disproportionately harm African Americans.  As the report found, “[t]he disparate impact of the criminal justice system on the African-American community extends beyond prison.  Virginia’s rate of felony disenfranchisement . . . is higher than the national average with 5,576 per 100,000 experiencing disenfranchisement, or 7.3 percent of the adult population.  African Americans in Virginia suffer disenfranchisement disproportionately.  One in five (20.4 percent) of African-American Virginians are disenfranchised, the third highest rate of all the states.”  It’s past time for the General Assembly to support an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia that ends felon disenfranchisement.

Click here to stay up to date on our efforts to bring smart on crime reforms to the Commonwealth.

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