A Prison Reality Check in Virginia

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Virginia is facing a fiscal emergency. The commonwealth faces a nearly $3 billion shortfall this year. At the same time, the growth of Virginia's prison budget has dramatically outpaced other spending items over the past decade. Spending on incarceration consumes more than $1 billion each year. In response to the state's fiscal crisis, and in recognition of the explosion in prison spending, Gov. Tim Kaine recently proposed [front page, Dec. 18] releasing some prisoners 90 days before the end of their sentences. The governor's proposal is limited to nonviolent offenders who have been model inmates, and merely enlarges the period of early release to 90 days from the present 30 days.

Prominent Republicans who have served in important criminal justice policy positions -- including Richard Cullen, a former U.S. attorney, state attorney general and tough-on-crime sentencing reformer under former governor George Allen -- have expressed support for Kaine's proposal. Of course, Cullen isn't seeking an elected office. But state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who is running for governor,. has criticized Kaine's idea through his spokesman.

But Kaine has it exactly right. Tired, tough-on-crime rhetoric says that all offenders should be locked up for as long as possible. But this approach simply doesn't work as a method of governance. Nationwide, all around the country, criminal sentences have been escalating for decades. And this escalation has usually occurred from a premise that all offenders, violent and nonviolent alike, should be treated more harshly and imprisoned longer. The result is burgeoning prison populations and spiking prison costs. Virginia is a prime example. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the imprisonment rate grew faster from 2000 to 2007 in Virginia than in all but five states. And other states where criminal justice policy has been dictated by irrational tough-on-crime positions have it even worse. For example, California might have to release more than one-third of its inmates to alleviate chronic overcrowding, while drastically slashing other public expenditures.

But now, the economic downturn has brought criminal justice expenditures to a collision with reality. Sometimes, crisis is opportunity. Virginia can't blindly devote money to incarceration. It needs to differentiate between those who deserve and need to remain in jail, such as violent offenders, and those who don't, such as nonviolent offenders who pose no danger to society and who will serve or may have already served substantial prison time. After all, when resources are limited, spending money to incarcerate the nonviolent, non-dangerous offender means less money to spend on other priorities. What other priorities should lose funding? Schools? Efforts to put more police on the streets? Bigger cuts in these areas will increase crime. And if the beds in Virginia prisons are occupied by people who don't need to be there, then the cycle will perpetuate itself: Even more money will need to be spent to build jails, less will be available for education and police, and crime rates will increase yet again.

It takes a brave governor to recognize that sound government sometimes means having the guts to tell people that the criminal justice system has gone too far. Kaine's critics can use all the tough-on-crime rhetoric they want to try to get elected. But Kaine actually has to govern. And with this proposal, he's governing wisely.

-- Anthony Barkow

New York

The writer is executive director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University School of Law.

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