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Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA)

 Kaine’s record on criminal justice issues

“We still have an embarrassingly high number of people in prison compared to other countries.”  

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), talking about sentencing reform during a sit-down with black leaders in Lynchburg, Virginia, on April 9, 2015.

We gave Senator Kaine’s statement ZERO BARS because it is TRUE. The U.S. does, in fact, have the largest prison population and the second-highest incarceration rate in the world.

According to the World Prison Population List published by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research in October 2015, the U.S. prison population hovers around 2.2 million people, easily exceeding national prison populations worldwide, including China’s (1.65 million) and Russia’s (640,000). As both Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul have pointed out, while less than five percent of the global population call the U.S. home, the country boasts nearly a quarter of the global prison population.

The same study notes that China’s prison population figure fails to include “an unknown number in pre-trial detention or ‘administrative detention,’” which China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate revealed to be above 650,000 in 2009. Meanwhile, there are no figures available for Eritrea, Somalia, and the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea.

Among developed countries, however, the U.S. prison population is unquestionably the highest. Even more significantly, the U.S. prison population rate – the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population – is the second highest in the world at 698, much higher than other developed countries and only trailing behind Seychelles in Eastern Africa.



“Richmond’s success in reducing violent crime was built in part on Project Exile. Project Exile is based on a strong working relationship among federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to maximize the punishment of criminals who commit crimes with guns.” 

Lieutenant Governor Tim Kaine (D-VA) on his 2005 gubernatorial campaign site

We gave Senator Kaine’s statement TWO BARS because the JURY’S OUT. Research shows that Richmond’s violent crime decline was caused by many factors other than the use of mandatory minimum sentences. However, Senator Kaine may be correct that Project Exile was “in part” responsible for part of that decline because researchers can not demonstrate that it played no role at all.

While supporters of Project Exile argue that it dramatically reduced homicide levels in Richmond, a 2003 Brookings Institution study undermines this claim. It points out that although gun homicides did decline 40 percent from 1997 to 1998 – just a year after the program was announced – almost all of that decrease can be attributed to factors outside the scope of Project Exile. Homicides increased in Richmond in 1997, while Project Exile was in effect, and that year Richmond had an unusually high murder rate to begin with. Put differently, the city’s murder rate had an unusual blip upwards in 1997, followed by a decline that was also happening everywhere else in the country in 1998. Project Exile cannot be credited with causing that decline.

When Brookings Institute researchers isolated Richmond to make room for region-specific factors that may have influenced the gun homicide decline, they continued to see that Project Exile was not particularly impactful. For example, comparing the city’s adult homicide arrest rates to the city’s juvenile homicide arrest rates, which were typically not eligible for “felon-in-possession” prosecutions under the program, the study found that adult homicide arrest rates actually increased relative to juvenile arrest rates.

Economist Steven Levitt reviewed the Brookings Institute findings and found them sound. Using his own analysis, he found that Project Exile may have been responsible for, at most, 2.5 percent of Richmond’s drop in crime – the equivalent of two or three homicides. Project Exile certainly maximized punishment, but it does not deserve credit for playing anything more than a tiny part in reducing violent crime in Richmond. Because Senator Kaine simply said that Project Exile played a part, without specifying whether that part was substantial or very minor, the jury’s out on whether his claim is true. 

Kaine’s Record on Criminal Justice Issues

  • 1999: As Mayor of Richmond, Kaine was a supporter of Project Exile, a program launched in Virginia’s capital city as a response to rising crime rates that moved gun offenses involving drugs and convicted felons out of state courts and into the federal system, where gun offenders would face mandatory minimum sentences. Kaine claimed the program was restoring hope to the city, telling the New York Times, “In Richmond, there has been an intense need for people to become believers in their own community. High crime has been our psychological downer. But Project Exile is driving the crime rate down, and that is starting to make Richmonders believers again.”
  • 2005: During his gubernatorial campaign, Kaine’s website highlighted the role of Project Exile in making Virginia’s capital safer: “Richmond’s success in reducing violent crime was built in part on Project Exile. Project Exile is based on a strong working relationship among federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to maximize the punishment of criminals who commit crimes with guns.”
  • 2007: As Governor, Kaine blocked death penalty expansion bills that would allow capital charges to be brought against accomplices and those indirectly involved in first degree murders.
  • 2012: During his senatorial campaign, Kaine said he would “continue Senator Jim Webb’s effort to focus attention on the overuse of incarceration in this nation, especially as applied to African-American males.”
  • 2014: Senator Kaine supported the Smarter Sentencing Act, saying it “would reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders and give judges greater authority to determine the right sentence for the crime – saving billions in taxpayer dollars and putting faith back into our criminal justice system.”
  • 2015: Senator Kaine supported the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, the most recent major bipartisan attempt at criminal justice reform. He said the country has “an embarrassingly high number of people in prison compared to other countries” and that he believed reform could “reduce the costs of incarceration and promote fairness within our criminal justice system without compromising public safety.”

 FAMM is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. FAMM does not endorse any candidate or party in any election, and it does not make any campaign contributions. The information here is not provided and should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any particular candidate or party. 

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