Party & Racial Lines Divide Lawmakers on Reform

Party & Racial Lines Divide Lawmakers on Reform
Posted by FoM on March 08, 2000 at 06:39:11 PT
By Bill Sizemore, The Virginian-Pilot 
Source: Pilot Online
A wide gulf divides Hampton Roads lawmakers over how well Virginia's punitive approach to crime and imprisonment is working. The gap tends to follow partisan and racial lines.Lawmakers agree that promoting public safety is a paramount concern; the disagreement is over how to do it. Those who think the state's get-tough policy has worked well tend to be white and Republican. 
Those who believe that approach has been wasteful, possibly counterproductive, and would rather rely more on crime-prevention measures and rehabilitation are more likely to be black and Democratic.There appears to be little common ground between the two camps. In some cases, there isn't even a common understanding of current reality from which to begin a discussion. For example, the existence of racial disparity in drug-law enforcement is taken as a given by black lawmakers but widely denied by their white colleagues.After chronicling years of dramatic increases in incarceration and prison construction, The Virginian-Pilot provided a synopsis of its findings to area lawmakers and Virginia's statewide elected leaders and asked for their reactions.Many of their reactions were similar, if not identical. The Republican legislative delegation issued a joint response. The three statewide leaders, all Republicans, made many of the same points. All said the billions of dollars Virginia has put into its mushrooming prison system has been money well spent.``Providing the funding to make Virginians safer was our duty -- and we made the hard decisions to make sure Virginians would be less likely to be victims of crime,'' the Republican lawmakers said. ``One cannot put a price on the peace of mind and safety of its citizens,'' said Gov. Jim Gilmore.Even with the rising prison budget, ``other pressing state needs are being well funded and not shortchanged,'' Lt. Gov. John H. Hager said.``To do something right it costs money; and by any measurable standard the Virginia Department of Corrections is one of the best managed agencies in state government,'' said David Botkins, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Earley.Some Democrats pointed out that in 1995, four years before they lost control of the General Assembly, they successfully resisted the efforts of Gilmore's Republican predecessor, George Allen, to borrow $300 million for additional prison construction.``Our caution has been shown to be justified,'' said Del. Thomas W. Moss Jr., D-Norfolk, noting that even without the additional prisons, the state now has thousands of surplus cells that it is renting out to other states.``At a minimum of $50,000 per bed, this means we have spent at least $160 million on prison beds before they were necessary,'' Moss said. ``These dollars could have been used to meet pressing current capital needs in transportation and school construction.''Del. Kenneth R. Melvin, D-Portsmouth, called the overbuilding ``a miscalculation of monumental proportions.'' Supporters, Critics Speak Out: Republicans were uniformly supportive of Allen's sweeping ``truth in sentencing'' initiative, enacted by large bipartisan majorities in 1994, which abolished parole and dramatically lengthened many criminal sentences.``When we adopted the 1994 reforms, we knew that repeat offenders committed three out of four crimes,'' the Republican legislators said. ``These violent felons served on average only one-third of their sentences. Instead of worrying about having too many criminals in our prisons, we decided to start worrying about having too many criminals on our streets.''Some Democrats who supported the Allen initiative said it is too early to tell what its ultimate results will be. They noted that crime has dropped in Virginia, but pointed out that it has also dropped in states that didn't take such measures. They suggested that other factors such as the booming economy could be at work.Some said the state needs to examine the implications of keeping people imprisoned into old age, as the cost of confining them rises and the chances of recidivism fall.``We need to look further at the possibility of elderly, nonviolent inmates being released early, which would result in considerable taxpayer savings,'' said Del. William K. Barlow, D-Smithfield.Local black lawmakers were among the few who opposed Allen's get-tough program in 1994. Some, at least, remain convinced that it was a mistake. ``Now that we have no parole, there's no incentive to rehabilitate, there's no incentive to get an education,'' said Del. Jerrauld C. Jones, D-Norfolk. ``What is the benefit, if you don't get any institutional credit for it? ``Those are the kind of short-sighted policies that we have adopted in the name of a war on drugs that we're clearly losing. It is taxing our governmental and societal resources, and in a way I think it is taxing our humanity -- our ability to be humane and to believe in the basic redemption of the human soul.''Gilmore has acknowledged that the war on drugs, the biggest factor behind Virginia's incarceration boom, isn't having the desired effect of reducing drug use or traffic. His answer is SABRE (Substance Abuse Reduction Effort), a multi-faceted, $41.5 million program that would dramatically increase many drug penalties while providing additional money for drug treatment. He, Hager and Earley all reiterated their support for the proposal.SABRE relies heavily on mandatory minimums -- legislated penalties that allow judges little discretion in sentencing. Many such laws have been enacted as part of drug-war initiatives around the country and have been widely criticized by lawyers and judges because they are based largely on the quantity of drugs involved, rather than the severity of the crime or the culpability of the defendant.Jones said such laws have produced some harsh and unjust results. He cited the case of Kemba Smith, a Hampton University student who received a 25-year sentence in federal prison for her peripheral involvement in the activities of her drug-dealing boyfriend.Racial Question Still the Thorniest: Perhaps the widest gap came in response to the issue of racial disparity in drug-law enforcement.As the Pilot's investigation showed, black Virginians are arrested, tried and imprisoned on drug charges in numbers vastly out of proportion to their drug use as measured in national surveys.Gilmore, Hager, Earley and the Republican lawmakers, all of whom are white, addressed the issue by saying Virginia's sentencing guidelines were designed to eliminate all disparity, racial and otherwise.That is true, said Del. William P. Robinson Jr., D-Norfolk, who is black. ``The guidelines have helped at that stage of the process,'' Robinson said. ``But at the front end, the statistics support the conclusion that minority populations are disproportionately targeted and prosecuted for these types of offenses.''All of the black lawmakers who responded agreed that the disparity exists.Just getting the issue into the open is a start, said Jones.``When you say that black people are disproportionately incarcerated and suggest that somehow there is white racism toward black people, white people get nervous,'' Jones said. ``Disclosure of these disparities is the first major step. That sounds pretty basic, but that's where we are. We're at square one in trying to deal with this issue.''Reach Bill Sizemore at 757-446-2276 or size Instant Poll:What do you think of the amount Virginia spends to confine prisoners? March 8, 2000 Virginian-Pilot Interactive Media Copyright 2000, Landmark Communications Inc.Related Articles:Virginia is Paying the Price for Prison Boom Shows Little Support for Gilmore's Drug Plan
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Comment #1 posted by FoM on March 08, 2000 at 17:08:34 PT:
Hampton Roads Talk Net - Series Message Board
The High Cost of Hard TimeSix years ago, under then-Gov. George Allen, Virginia got tough on criminals and launched a $400 million wave of prison construction. Now the state has one of the most punitive justice systems in the world and must import out-of-state criminals to fill prison beds. Virginia's prisoners are increasingly drug offenders, disproportionately black, and growing old without parole. (Special report.) What do you think? Was the state right to get tough on criminals, or did it overreact?
The High Cost of Hard Time - Pilot Online
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