Time for ‘Smart-on-Crime’ Policies, Principles

Post Date: April 9, 2014

(Gus Smith and Bobby Vassar Op-Ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch) —  We know Virginia. All too well.

One of us has been on the side of Virginia policymaking — making decisions that impacted many, including tough judgment calls. The other has been on the receiving end of the system — accepting policies and decisions that have already been made, becoming a family of victims of draconian sentencing, advocating tirelessly for civil rights and social justice.

In both roles, the challenges have been heavy, but there have been successes and they have been life-changing. And today, we both agree that it’s high time for another win — in criminal justice reform in the commonwealth. Virginia policymakers should be ready, too, after reading “Billion Dollar Divide: Virginia’s Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge,” recently released by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI).

The commonwealth is spending billions on a criminal justice system that has seen its prison population increase by 735 percent since the 1970s. More prisons have been built, though some even sat empty. More money. More people are being incarcerated. More money. And more people are staying in Virginia’s state prisons for longer periods of time. Again, more money. JPI’s “Billion Dollar Divide” reports that the commonwealth’s corrections spending rose by 288 percent between 1984 and 2014, and if the FY15 budget is accepted, the corrections budget will surpass $1 billion. Yet, there is no evidence that such incredible spending has resulted in the reduction in crime on which it was premised, as Virginia’s crime rates have been no better than those of states that have spent far less on incarceration. It’s time for Virginia to figure out that this approach doesn’t make our communities safer.

Though the two of us have had different experiences in working with the criminal justice system, we also have an important characteristic in common: We are African-American men. We highlight this because though African-Americans make up 20 percent of Virginia’s population, 61 percent of the state’s prison population is African-American, and 72 percent of those in prison are for drug offenses, according to JPI’s analysis. And over 90 percent of African-Americans in Virginia’s prisons are men. This disparity has had a devastating effect upon the African-American community in Virginia. And the disparities and their effects don’t stop when the prison sentence is completed. Even when people are eventually released, they’re disenfranchised and have no vote. While there has been some progress in restoring the right to vote, we need to take the next step and allow for automatic restoration of rights. Read more