Our criminal justice system is broken.
It’s way past time to fix it.
Every Virginian deserves to feel safe in their community, and every Virginian deserves equal rights under the law. Our criminal justice system is not currently delivering on these ideals. Instead, we’re wasting money, reinforcing racially discriminatory outcomes, and falling behind as reformers in other states move forward. The United States imprisons a higher share of our population than any industrialized country, and Virginia has one of the largest prison populations in the country. Virginia still has some of the harshest laws on the books for non-violent offenders, drug addicts, and juveniles. As more people of all political views grow to understand the human and financial costs of mass incarceration, it is past time for serious, wide-ranging reform of our policing and criminal justice system.
Because the numerous benefits of reform are so clear, this should be an issue that brings people together across party lines. We should be adopting evidence-based programs that keep our communities safe, reduce repeat offenses, save the state money, and help thousands of Virginians lead happier, fuller lives. Instead of a school to prison pipeline, we should be investing in a school to workforce pipeline that fosters growth and dignity. Even more conservative states like Georgia, Texas, and Oklahoma are pursuing more progressive approaches to criminal justice reform and alternatives to incarceration.
Virginia has made progress in recent years toward a more effective and fair approach to criminal justice. Governor Terry McAuliffe has shown strong leadership in restoring the voting rights of those who’ve served their sentences and reforming our juvenile justice system, and bipartisan groups of legislators have taken important steps towards more sensible drug policies. Police departments, including Richmond and Newport News, have implemented community policing strategies, strengthening the trust between citizens and law enforcement. Norfolk’s new mayor is pursuing policies of engagement and de-escalation. In the interest of safety, justice and fiscal responsibility, we can unite all Virginians around building on these successes to put our Commonwealth at the forefront of reform.
We have to stop criminalizing poverty.
Our criminal code today disproportionately impacts the poor and creates nearly insurmountable barriers for advancement. It is all too common for fines for minor infractions like traffic violations, trespassing, and disorderly conduct — which disproportionately impact communities of color — to accumulate, generating penalty fees and resulting in garnished wages or a suspended drivers’ license. This makes it harder for people to seek and maintain legitimate employment. We should end the practice of suspending licenses for non-driving offenses, and ensure that quality-of-life laws are not enforced in a discriminatory way.
We should also address needlessly harsh sentencing laws that result in taxpayers spending money to incarcerate without any evidence that such punishment changes behavior or improves community safety. For example, Virginia has one of the lowest thresholds for felony larceny in the country, at just $200. So if you steal something like an iPad or a pair of designer jeans from the mall, instead of facing misdemeanor charges or hefty fines, you’re a serious felon. This makes it all too easy for a person who made a mistake to become trapped in a cycle of incarceration, joblessness, and re-offense. Additionally, for a $200 theft, the state will spend 125 times that amount, or $25,000, for each year that person is incarcerated. When a long prison sentence is not effective at addressing someone’s behavior, we would be better off reallocating the dollars we are spending on their incarceration to other public safety pursuits.
Another key to addressing inequities in the justice system is to ensure that every Virginian has access to justice. This means we must provide for credible public defense for those accused of crimes. Virginia has one of the lowest provisions for indigent defense in the nation, even worse than Mississippi. Currently the state caps the costs for court-appointed attorneys at a total of $445, or just $158 for some misdemeanors involving jail time. I question what kind of justice that will buy a poor person in this state. Beyond raising the caps on court-appointed counsel fees, we should also make a reasonable provision for costs like expert witnesses and translators. Every Virginian deserves a fair day in court, regardless of their station in life.
We need to turn the school-to-prison pipeline into a school-to-workforce pipeline.
Virginia refers more of its students to the police than any state in the country, leading to a juvenile incarceration rate 75 percent higher than the national average. This is bad for children in any community, but the pain has been felt most acutely by African-American families, whose children represent only 20 percent of youth in the state but 70 percent of those in detention.
If the goal is truly public safety, data shows that this system of ever greater punishments for youth is counterproductive: almost 75 percent of youth offenders are re-arrested within three years, and research by the state Department of Juvenile Justice has found that the longer a child is incarcerated, the higher the likelihood that they will end up back in the system. All of this comes at a cost to the Commonwealth of close to $200 million, including $150,000 per year to keep a child incarcerated. There are proven alternatives that would benefit children, public safety, and our public finances.
To turn this around we must first look to our schools, where a “zero tolerance” approach to school discipline has resulted in our state having the highest rate of student referrals to law enforcement in the country in 2015 — nearly three times the national average. Turning students over to police, rather than dealing with disciplinary issues administratively within the school system, fails to address the causes of misbehavior and often becomes the first step on a path into the juvenile justice system. Recent efforts at reform in Virginia, such as the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, are a right step forward, and as Governor, I will support the State Board of Education and local school systems in developing better approaches to school discipline.
For youth offenders, I would shift our emphasis from punishment to personal accountability to victims and the community, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health counseling, and education. In cases where jailing may be necessary, we should look to replace incarceration in large juvenile facilities with smaller, regional facilities where youth can be closer to their families, support networks, and services that can help them make positive changes. The state should also ramp up efforts to help localities reduce the use of pretrial detention in Virginia counties and cities and keep young people out of “juvenile jails” whenever possible. Evidence shows that these approaches reduce recidivism — and come with a much lower price tag. Some of the successful real-world examples of these ideas come from solidly red states like Texas and Georgia, the former of which saw the numbers of incarcerated youth fall 75 percent while juvenile crime also decreased.
We have to make prison and policing more effective.
Virginia imprisons too many people for too long, with high costs for the public and the health of our communities. We spend more than $1.5 billion per year on prisons and jails and have produced a system in which nearly one in fifty adults is incarcerated or under correctional supervision. This is a waste of our state’s money and of its people, and it is ultimately counterproductive to public safety.
It is time for us to reform our sentencing laws and prison system to apply criminal justice in a way that is fair to all Virginians, effective at providing public safety, and efficient in our use of taxpayer dollars. We can begin by focusing imprisonment on those who present a real threat to the public, while seeking alternatives for minor and victimless crimes, and promoting rehabilitation and education so that fewer crimes are committed in the first place. We should reverse the decisions made in recent years to eliminate parole for people who pose no threat to public safety, including elderly prisoners, which have resulted in spiraling costs for the medical care of people too ill or infirm to present a threat. And we should implement the recommendations of the Commission on Parole review that brought law enforcement, corrections experts and legislators together to identify ways to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Virginia and reallocate resources to more effective public safety approaches.
For criminal justice reform to be both just and effective, we must also work toward a more positive relationship between police and the public they protect. I have tremendous respect for the men and women who serve the Commonwealth as law enforcement officers. I have lived and worked in countries where basic policing is absent, and I know from experience that physical security is the basic condition for a functioning society. But that experience is why I also believe that real security is achieved when all citizens feel that law enforcement is on their side, and that they can work together as partners in the effort to keep communities safe.
As governor, I will work closely with local police and sheriff’s departments to support training on community policing, de-escalation, and non-lethal tactics, including identifying funding and incentives for departments that want to take this approach. I will promote improved data and transparency on arrests and shootings, so that we can all ground our discussions on policing effectiveness in good information. I will encourage consistent use of body cameras by law enforcement, as well as ensuring access to other important equipment such as body armor and tactical first aid kits. And with our jails frequently serving as the biggest mental health facilities in the state, I will work with law enforcement and local government to support systems that divert people whose principal problem is a mental health need into appropriate treatment as early as possible, allowing our police to focus on more pressing public safety challenges.
We must treat addiction as a health issue.
The opioid epidemic now tearing so cruelly at communities across our state highlights the failures of our decades old war on drugs. Now is the time to recognize that addiction is a sickness that punishment does nothing to heal. It makes no sense to me that we can find the resources to lock an addict up for possession, but have put so little into rehabilitation that the same person has to get on a long waiting list for a treatment facility when they’re ready to get clean. The hardest part of recovery is the decision to stop using; once a person gets there, we should make it easy for them to take the next step by entering treatment.
As governor, I would focus our law enforcement resources on drug traffickers and distributors, while emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment for non-violent users. I would encourage adoption of the principles underlying the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) approach, through which law enforcement officials work with health authorities and social workers to divert low-level offenders into treatment, counselling, and social services. Not only does this approach address the real causes of addiction, it frees up higher-cost law police resources to focus on real threats to public safety. Similarly, I would work to end the counter-productive practice of cutting anyone with a drug arrest off of many forms of social services and public assistance. Poverty and instability are known risk factors for drug abuse, and it seems to me that throwing someone off of public housing or food stamps for good can only make it harder for them to turn their life around.
These are not partisan issues. They’re right for our communities.
So-called “tough on crime” policies have long been used to manipulate fear and get politicians elected, but thirty years into the era of mass incarceration, we now understand that these policies have hurt all of us. Certainly they hurt people of color, who the statistics show are disproportionately likely to be arrested for minor infractions, convicted on arrest, and given longer sentences for similar violations. But they hurt communities everywhere, when children are turned into hardened criminals, when addicts get jail time rather than treatment, and when the breakdown of trust makes it harder for police to do their jobs.
I recognize that there are legislators in both parties who have attempted to advance a reform agenda in the General Assembly, only to meet opposition on even modest ideas. To break through that stalemate, I will examine options for building consensus among all stakeholders, including following the path of other Southern governors by appointing a bipartisan commission of experts to make recommendations. We have the opportunity to put in place policies that improve public safety, restore communities, and reduce the financial burden on the Commonwealth. I am certain that if our state’s leaders look into the evidence on what works and listen to the stories of what is broken, we will be able to come together to do what is right.
-Submitted by Ian Sams