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Editorial: Be Tough on Crime Spending

A simple failure to account for inflation has inflated Virginia’s sentencing for grand larceny, a charge that wouldn’t reach that legal threshold were it adjusted from a rate set 33 years ago to reflect the actual value of a dollar today.

Changing that one thing — to $600 from $200 — could save $22.5 million over six years in spending on incarcerations.

That’s an interesting tidbit in a Justice Policy Institute report that pegs the commonwealth’s justice system as “Expensive, Ineffective and Unfair.”

The larger policy question the report raises is whether it is time to repeal Virginia’s truth-in-sentencing statutes and reinstate parole. The issue is worth exploring as the state chips away at more constructive uses of taxpayer dollars — such as support for education — while it lives with the consequences of its tough-on-crime politics.

One consequence: a combined $3 billion annual tab for its Office of Public Safety and judiciary.

The report suggests the election this year of a new governor offers a chance to look anew at “challenges created by decades of over-punishment and the associated costs.” Sentencing reform did not feature prominently in the campaign, though. And it’s doubtful the election of Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, will boost the issue in the Republican-dominated House of Delegates even if he were to make it a priority.

Yet tough-on-spending lawmakers should have reasons of their own to take another look.

Republican George Allen won the governor’s race in 1994 touting a promise to end parole. In 1995, Virginia did so, and adopted a “truth-in-sentencing” system that requires state inmates to serve 85 percent of their time.

Virginia, meanwhile, continues to emphasize law enforcement over public health strategies in a losing battle to combat the societal scourge of substance abuse. And lawmakers still burnish campaign fliers with the votes they’ve cast to lengthen sentences and punish juvenile offenders as adults.

Voters who support expensive tough-on-crime nostrums seem to accept the cost as the price they must pay for safety, a perception not entirely justified by data.

The report notes that, reflecting a national trend, Virginia has seen a steady decline in crime over the past two decades. But, it asserts, the no-parole policy is not a factor. And it cites the Virginia Department of Corrections’ own research indicating that, after other factors are eliminated, truth-in-sentencing does not improve recidivism rates.

Granted, the nonprofit Justice Policy Institute states first that its mission is “to reduce use of incarceration and the justice system” to promote its vision of “a society with safe, equitable and healthy communities.”

It has an agenda, though it is not hidden.

Given growing worry about the cost, if not the fairness, of a harsh justice system, Virginia lawmakers need to take a hard look at its effectiveness.

Posted in JPI in the News

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