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Time is right for criminal justice reforms

This piece originally appeared in the Virginian Pilot.

WHILE MOST PEOPLE undoubtedly had their eyes on presidential politics this election season, the numerous criminal justice reform measures that were passed in more than half a dozen states nationwide also are worth noting. A growing number of voters nationwide have seemingly run out of patience with an often overly expensive and flawed criminal justice system.

There are signs that Virginia may soon be one of those states.

Polls have shown that a growing number of Virginians have become impatient with a state system that is quick to harshly punish individuals for low-level crimes. These punishments divert resources from more serious law enforcement demands. This shift may have influenced Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment’s recent announcement in support of studying the decriminalization of marijuana and other reforms.

Even though arrests for marijuana possession nationwide showed a 6.6 percent decline from 2003 to 2013, marijuana possession arrests in Virginia increased by 76 percent during the same time, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. In 2012 alone, Virginia arrested 38,349 people on drug charges — a 51 percent increase from 2002. Marijuana arrests accounted for 62.4 percent, or 23,936, of those arrests. In 2011, Virginia spent more than $94 million on drug arrests.

While examining the state’s severity of punishment for low-level drug offenses would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction, it would only skim the surface of a growing range of issues that plague Virginia’s correctional system.

Take the issue of larceny thresholds, for example.

Since 1980, a theft of $200 or more in Virginia has been considered a felony offense rather than a misdemeanor. This represents the lowest felony larceny threshold in the nation. Even Texas, a state that is famously tough on crime, recently increased its felony threshold, which had been set at $1,500 since 1993.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, if Virginia increases its felony threshold by simply raising the amount that distinguishes larceny from grand larceny from $200 to $600, the state’s taxpayers would save approximately $22.5 million.

Virginia also could save money by examining its correctional system. A recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that of 40 participating states, Virginia had the 17th highest correctional budget, dolling out roughly $1.5 billion a year to operate its already overcrowded jails and prisons. Separate from drug-related arrests, Virginia had the nation’s 13th-highest incarceration rate, with 469 per 100,000 state residents — or 38,130 total individuals — in prison.

Upholding the rule of law is certainly necessary, but Virginians would agree that the punishment should fit the crime. Relying on incarceration for low-level crimes is not only costly for taxpayers and the offenders in question, it creates overburdened correctional systems that are unable to consistently provide services or safety.

Negative long-term consequences result, not just for those who run afoul of the law, but for their families and communities.

With escalating costs of incarceration and enforcement, it’s clear that Virginia’s criminal justice system urgently needs reform. State lawmakers should reconsider the severity of punishments for low-level, nonviolent crimes in order to restore individuals’ dignity, reduce costs and ultimately improve public safety and our communities. Voters in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas have already signaled their support for criminal justice reforms. It is time for Virginians to join their ranks.

Jordan Richardson

is a senior policy analyst for criminal justice reform at the Charles Koch Institute in Arlington.

This piece originally appeared in the Virginian Pilot.

You can follow Jordan on Twitter at @RobertJordanWV.

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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