by Sarah Scarbrough
My last blog post established that crime has gone down since mass incarceration began but that mass incarceration was not responsible for that decline. Studies have shown no significant correlation between the increase in the prison population and the decrease in crime.
Attitudes toward mass incarceration are changing. In an initiative endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recently voted to retroactively extend lighter sentencing guidelines to almost 46,000 prisoners serving time for federal drug crimes. At the state level, budget shortfalls have forced governors and lawmakers to take a look at their own policies. Some states have eased drug laws, decreased mandatory minimum sentences, or developed alternatives to incarceration. Even in the world’s prison capital, Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal passed modest measures to develop early release programs for non-violent drug offenders. The effort will contribute to lowering the number of those involved with “mass incarceration sentencing.”
So, what about Virginia? Virginia has the 14th highest incarceration rate of the 50 states. As a conservative state, Virginia has always been “tough on crime”; judges are tough on non-violent and drug offenders. Virginia has seen no efforts to curb mass incarceration comparable to those in Louisiana. The state still follows the abolition-of-parole law, in which all offenders must serve 85% of their sentence. Efforts are underway to lower the recidivism rate, but nothing is being done about mass incarceration.
That said, the McDonnell administration and now the McAuliffe administration have put forth efforts for offender rehabilitation and re-entry programming at a state level to prepare offenders for release from incarceration in hopes they will not recidivate – or come back to jail time and time again. A holistic statewide effort for alternatives, however, has yet to been seen.
By contrast, the City of Richmond has embraced alternatives to incarceration. The Sheriff’s office, City Council, the Mayor’s office, the Department of Justice Services and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office have collaborated to advance the drug court, the day reporting center, and the mental health docket. The drug court has been around for some time but it gaining traction. Some alternatives require a combination of jail time and treatment in the community; others are community based.
However, none of these alternatives affect people who were harshly sentenced before and still languish behind bars. Typically, these alternatives are applied to younger and first-time offenders. Folks we would refer to as “career criminals” are not benefiting. While their current crime might make them candidates for an alternative, prosecutors use their criminal history to try to convince judges to impose long, harsh sentences.
Looking specifically at the Richmond Sheriff’s office, where I also work full time, Sheriff C.T. Woody has always said we are locking up the wrong people. Addicts are getting stiff sentences even though addiction is a disease and incarcerating them for long periods of time does not work. Drugs are rampant in prison, so use and addiction continues during lock-up. Even if offenders don’t use drugs while incarcerated, they are very likely to start using again when they get out, especially if they aren’t involved in a treatment program in jail. Side note: Many addicts overdose when they get out of jail because they use the same amount of drugs they did before they got locked up without realizing that their tolerance is no longer as high as it had been.
Prison is a breeding ground to create better criminals – to discuss how to get away crimes next time, to meet more drug contacts and street criminals, to fight and join gangs, without learning how to properly function in society. A letter I recently received from an offender in prison said ISIS is recruiting in prison.
Incarceration is not a place for the mentally ill, but our jails and prisons are full of them. The Richmond City Justice Center is full of individuals who battle diagnosed mental health illnesses. The medical team provides them with top-notch care, but jail or prison is not the place to manage, treat, and address such mental health issues.
Think about this: Someone convicted of a non-violent drug crime is sentenced to 20 years. He goes to prison when he is 20 and gets out when he is 40. He gets locked up in 1990 and gets out in 2010. Today there are cell phones, public toilets flush automatically, and everyone has the Internet. Facebook, Google, and Instagram did not exist in 1990. Now all job applications are online. People are being released into a world that makes no sense.
So, the only question remaining is what should we do?
We should not put people behind bars and warehouse them. We should address their root problems.
We are blessed in Richmond to have the newly built Justice Center. The Justice Center was designed with programming in mind. Our Internal Program Department has created an evidence-based program that uses a holistic approach to address the behaviors associated with criminality. The focus on behavioral modification inspires program participants to face their problems and overcome their addictive lifestyles, whether it is to drugs, alcohol, dealing drugs, women, cars, etc. – namely, whatever placed them in their current situation, and so often kept them incarcerated time and time again. While this approach doesn’t un-do mass incarceration, it does help reduce recidivism and crime.
I would encourage other sheriffs to embrace programming, so they too can contribute to changing lives and breaking the cycle of drugs, criminality, and incarceration. I encourage legislators to examine state policies that contribute to mass incarceration, much like Louisiana did.
Sarah Scarbrough is internal program director for the Richmond City Justice Center. This essay was originally published on her blog.There are currently no comments highlighted.