by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director (originally published by the Richmond Times Dispatch)

Last week, Governor McAuliffe announced the establishment of a commission to study and make recommendations about Virginia’s parole system. This is an important step toward creating an effective, commonsense Virginia justice system.
The decision made two decades ago by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to abolish parole reinforced the commonwealth’s extreme sentencing approach to criminal justice — an approach that has created a 735 percent increase in the commonwealth’s incarceration rate since the 1970s and saddled taxpayers with an annual corrections budget exceeding $1 billion. Meanwhile, Virginia’s crime rate, while following the national trend downward, has decreased less than in states that have reduced incarceration levels during the same period.

Numerous states — including Georgia, West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina and North Carolina — have made practical, commonsense reforms to cut down on unnecessary incarceration and put themselves on the path to smart and fair justice. Virginia lawmakers should catch up with our neighbors and embrace reforms that work.

There is no consensus on what has really driven the steep drop in crime rates around the country in recent years. Studies point to a number of variables, including the reduction in lead paint and abolishment of leaded gasoline (lead is known to cause poor impulse control), access to drug treatment and mental health services, and access to education, employment and housing. Overreliance on prison, on the other hand, has been shown to correlate with higher recidivism rates.

Thankfully, many alternatives to incarceration exist, including drug and mental health treatment for people who are sick, community supervision for people who commit low-level crimes, and reducing sentences for those for whom incarceration is appropriate but need not be so lengthy. Virginia can adopt these approaches without increasing crime and with great economic and social benefits.

What would a sensible approach to criminal justice look like for Virginia? To start, instead of allowing our jails to become the commonwealth’s mental health institutions (at a huge cost to taxpayers), we should ensure that we adequately fund community mental health and substance abuse programs. We should provide Virginians with the treatment they need, not wait until crimes are committed to address the underlying issue.

Similarly, evidence shows that investing proactively in drug treatment programs is more effective at reducing drug use than criminal justice approaches, and much cheaper. Drug abuse is a public health problem and requires a public health solution, not judges, prosecutors and jails.

We must also put parole back on the table. Consider the following critical facts: First, the vast majority of people who enter Virginia’s prisons will come out. Second, spending more time in prison does not make someone less likely to commit another offense, and has been shown to actually increase recidivism. While society may benefit from denying parole for some prisoners, abolishing parole altogether removes a critical incentive for prisoners to behave well in prison and prepare themselves for successful re-entry to their communities. Other states have recognized this fact: In 1995, Mississippi dramatically limited parole for offenses across the board, but in 2008 it rolled back the law to open up parole opportunities for many thousands of prisoners. Parole has since functioned as a critical safety valve to ensure that prisoners who can safely re-enter their communities and rejoin their families are able to do so. Meanwhile, violent crime has continued to decrease in the state.

Even after individuals have served their sentence, they continue to face barriers to getting housing, work, an education and some stability in their lives — factors that reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend. According to the American Bar Association, Virginia has 795 provisions that negatively impact people after they have already served their sentences. While some may serve a valid purpose, such as keeping a convicted embezzler from serving as an accountant, many have no connection to the individual’s criminal offense, such as revoking a driver’s license because of a marijuana possession conviction. We must end this counterproductive, endless punishment.

Finally, we cannot talk about our criminal justice system without talking about race. Studies have shown that African Americans are more likely to receive harsher treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system when compared to similar white individuals. In just one example, while African-Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate, African-Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in the commonwealth.

Virginia is a powerhouse that in so many ways has become a leader for the 21st century. It’s time for our criminal justice system to catch up. We need a system that provides practical commonsense solutions and that is designed to foster safe and healthy communities. We need a system that works for Virginia communities and the Virginia budget.
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