Smart on crime again replaces tough on crime as prison reformers turn to re-entry programs
This year’s General Assembly...and everybody else...will be asked to reconsider some current policies about how the state deals with criminals. And, as Charles Fishburne reports, Virginia’s new prisons chief will have to convince a cash-strapped General Assembly to reallocate some money that may be misspent.
There is a brand-new 105-million dollar prison in Grayson County that is totally empty, but for a few employees who flush the toilets and work the locks and try to keep it functional. That is costing taxpayers two thousand dollars a day.
Mauer: For twenty-five years now, it's been popular among politicians to say, you know, 'let's build prisons to reduce crime.'
Marc Mauer is Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group that promotes prison reform.
Mauer: You can't be spending millions of dollars and not have any idea what you're gonna do about those institutions.
Six years ago, Virginia prisons were packed, with 35 thousand, projected to top 46 thousand by 2010, and the legislature in 2004 and 2005 authorized three new prisons to prepare for it. But it never happened. And while 'tough on crime' was a popular political battle cry, building prisons was apparently not the solution.
Webb: You ask people in this country if they feel any safer, more than 70 percent will tell you they feel less safe in their communities than they did a year ago.
Virginia Senator Jim Webb made the cover of Parade Magazine by noting America had only 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world's prisoners; that there were four times as many mentally-ill people in prison than in mental hospitals, and post-incarceration re-entry programs were haphazard and sometimes non-existent.
Webb: From all of the elements in our country that are involved in this issue, that we need to find the type of solution that's going to make our system more fair, that's going to make it more efficient and, in the end, is gonna give us the potential in terms of re-entry process, to reduce recidivism and reduce crime in our communities.
He proposed a Blue Ribbon Commission for a complete review of the Criminal Justice system. It passed the House, came close in the Senate and could be reintroduced this year. But Virginia’s corrections system can’t wait and its new Director has new ideas.
Clarke: I don't believe that many communities fully understand what prisons are all about.
Harold Clake came from Nebraska, Washington state and Massachusetts, where he set new standards in getting former inmates back into society.
Clarke: And they think that folks come to prison, then we lock them up, we throw the key away, we make them serve their sentences, we open the door and they go home as better people, simply because they have been locked up. Well, I'm not sure that locking anybody up for long periods of time is gonna make 'em a better person.
Nobody quarrels with keeping violent offenders behind bars. But for those who do their time, Clarke says there has to be a better way.
Clarke: Yeah, we have so far identified ten sites, existing facilities, at which we are going to be providing intensive re-entry programming.
That would be prisons in Bland, Mitchells, State Farm, Dillwyn, Victoria, Capron, Jarratt, Haynesville and two in Chesapeake, where the Department of Corrections will attempt to live up to its name.
Clarke: Treatments, for example, and so forth are available, counseling, places that can help them with job searching skills and so forth, all the things that they need to give them a fighting chance.
It will take community support and money and help from the General Assembly, a tough sell to help former criminals compete for jobs in a bad economy.
Mauer: There is a real dilemma in promoting criminal justice reform and I think fundamentally, the only way we can do crime control better is if we reduce excessive incarceration.
Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project.
Mauer: What we can then do is to redirect some of those resources. We need to do more front-end work, community-based policing, drug courts, drug intervention in early stages can be more effective than long-term incarceration.
Proponents say it makes for a safer world at a lower cost.
Mauer: I think there's growing bi-partisan support for policies that are viewed as smart on crime rather than tough on crime. You know, locking people up may make us feel good, but it doesn't necessarily always promote public safety.
Democrat Governor Tim Kaine and Republican Governor Bob McDonnell have both bought into it, with the establishment of an “Alternative for Non-violent Offenders" task force for Kaine, and Executive Order #11 for McDonnell, establishing a “Re-entry Council,” along with a million and a half in public and private funds to make a start.
Mauer: Liberals and conservatives alike are now interested in evidence-based approaches, that is, what works to reduce crime, as well as re-entry programming.
Webb: This is a buy-in.
Clarke: I am convinced that we can do a much better job at creating that public safety.
As for the inmates, 80-year old prison chaplain Joe Drivers has been visiting prisons for 35 years. He says some need to stay there, but we should not rush to judgement.
Drivers: It's taught me to never look at a person and make judgement on before I have time to understand them better.
You are about to hear a lot more about being “smart on crime,” that goes beyond locking the door and throwing away the key.
Charles Fishburne, WCVE News