Monday, April 7, 2014

Justice Policy Institute Report - Billion Dollar Divide: Virginia's Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge

"Billion Dollar Divide: Virginia's Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge"

The title of this post is the title of a new report by the Justice Policy Institute, which was released last week, is available here, and is summarized via this press release.  Here are excerpts from the press release: 

As Virginia lawmakers consider a budget that would see corrections spending surpass a billion dollars in general funds, a new report points to racial disparities, skewed fiscal priorities, and missed opportunities for improvements through proposed legislation, and calls for reforms to the commonwealth’s sentencing, corrections and criminal justice system. 

According to Billion Dollar Divide Virginia’s Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge, ... while other states are successfully reforming their sentencing laws, parole policies and drug laws, Virginia is lagging behind and spending significant funds that could be used more effectively to benefit public safety in the commonwealth.... 

According to the report, approximately 80 percent of the corrections budget is being spent on incarcerating people in secure facilities, while only about 10 percent of the budget is spent on supervising people in the community. Put another way, in 2010 for every dollar the Commonwealth of Virginia spent on community supervision, it spent approximately $13 on costs for those incarcerated. Other states have a better balance between prison spending, and supporting individuals in the community. 

"Taxpayers' wallets – and more important, people's lives – are in jeopardy," said Marc Schindler, executive director of JPI. "Instead of planning to spend more than $1 billion on an ineffective corrections system, Virginia should be looking to policies that are being implemented successfully in other states to make wiser use of precious resources and get better public safety outcomes.”... 
The report describes challenges facing Virginia’s sentencing, corrections and criminal justice system, including: 

  • Worrisome racial and ethnic disparities in how the state deals with drugs and drug crimes: African Americans make up approximately 20 percent of the Virginia population, but comprise 60 percent of the prison population, and 72 percent of all people incarcerated for a drug arrest.  JPI has compiled information for the largest Virginia cities and counties that show the disparities in drug enforcement, and the latest data show Virginia’s drug arrest rates on the rise;
  • More people serving longer sentences and rising length-of-stay: The changes to Truth-in-Sentencing enacted in the 1990s eliminated parole, and reduced access to earned-time and good-time credits.  The commonwealth has added more mandatory minimums that have lengthened prison terms, and about one quarter of all of Virginia’s mandatory minimum sentences involve drug offenses.  Between 1992 and 2007, there has been a 72 percent increase in individuals serving time for drug offenses.  There has also been a substantial and very expensive increase in the number of elderly individuals incarcerated in Virginia, despite strong evidence that these individuals pose little threat to public safety....
  • Challenges facing people impacted by the system getting a job, going to school, and integrating into their community: While Virginia has taken some positive steps by focusing more on having people successfully return to the community after having been incarcerated, there are more than 400,000 people with a felony conviction that places certain restrictions on where they might live, where they might work, their ability to get into school, and access support and opportunities that would reduce the likelihood of committing additional crimes.   
Virginia's criminal justice system sends more people to prison, incarcerates people longer and releases less people from prison than most other states,” said Lillie Branch-Kennedy, executive director for the Virginia-based Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged. “Even more so, our African-American population is disproportionally impacted and affected by the lack of reforms, draconian state drug policies and unfair sentencing. People should be outraged and change is needed now.”

Billion Dollar Divide asks the question, “with the commonwealth once again about to cross the divide of spending a billion general fund dollars on corrections, and with 2013 being the first year of a documented increase in the prison population in five years, shouldn’t alarm bells be ringing in Richmond around the current state of sentencing, corrections spending and criminal justice policy?”