Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli supports our principles

At the annual CPAC gathering in Washington last week, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli sounded off on why the principles of the Right on Crime campaign are good public policy.

Watch his speech by clicking here.

As the blog reported, “Conservatives should lead the campaign to changing the culture of corrections in America,” he called out to the crowd of conservatives.”

Virginia Focuses on Efficient Juvenile Justice

Texas and many other states have turned to free-market principles to increase the effectiveness and the efficiency of their juvenile justice systems. By prioritizing public safety in the expenditure of precious taxpayer dollars, free-market principles seek to keep streets safer and rehabilitate more juvenile offenders.

Virginia, too, is beginning to ask pointed questions about how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. As Mike Thompson points out in a recent issue of the Jefferson Policy Journal, the current tab for secure confinement of juveniles in Virginia stretches over $200 per day, per juvenile—almost $100,000 per year. And three-quarters of those youth are convicted of another offense within three years of release.

Virginia’s taxpayers deserve better. Thompson goes on to point out that prioritizing funding for programs proven to reduce delinquency in youths can result in substantial cost savings and lower crime rates. While secure confinement is necessary in some cases, most youth benefit far more from tailored, evidence-based programs that truly break the underlying delinquency cycles. And when those cycles are truncated at an early stage, Virginia’s taxpayers and citizens are the ultimate beneficiaries.

City of Richmond Debates Juvenile Detention

The City Council and Mayor in Richmond, Virginia, are looking long and hard at their juvenile detention policies.

A recent city council meeting included a discussion of a recently closed city-run juvenile detention facility in Richmond. An average of 39 juveniles were detained after arrest in the facility before the state put the facility on probation and the mayor closed it.

Officials sought to compare the facility to private options or facilities within a regional partnership, but were unable to do so as there was not sufficient data to assess how much the facility cost the city.

The meeting produced no final decision beyond an agreement that more study is needed.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has undertaken such a study, and recently released a report on detention alternatives that can save municipalities significant money while improving outcomes for juvenile offenders. The open debate and recently closed facility in Richmond provides an excellent opportunity for consideration of those alternatives and how they may benefit Virginia residents as well.

Jim Webb Finishing Senate Career Right

Jim Webb is in and out of prisons at a rapid rate.  The fiery Virginia senator is by no means a criminal, but for thirty years now he has been touring prisons and asking questions.

As a conservative democrat who was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in the Vietnam War, served as Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, and once criticized affirmative action as “state-sponsored racism,” Webb may not seem to fit the profile of most criminal justice reform champions.  Yet according to this week’s Newsweek, Senator Webb is leading the charge admirably.

Webb, a man who is committed to “preserving fairness while also preserving discipline,” crunched the numbers, and found that the United States is responsible for 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, but only 5% of the total population.  He also found that Japan imprisons 63 people per 100,000 citizens, compared to the United States’ 743.  As Senator Webb likes to put it, “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the U.S., or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.” He later saw the recidivism figures, along with the post-release employment figures, and he decided that something needed to change.

In 2009, Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would conduct the first review of national crime policy in forty-five years.  He has been fighting with “stress, insanity, and gnashing of teeth” to get it passed ever since.

Initially, says Webb, the conservative senators “assumed this was all about drugs…so there was hesitation.”  But with state budgets struggling, senators are seeing the rapid growth in corrections as a place where real spending cuts can be made without harming public safety.  Webb’s plan now has thirty-nine cosponsors (including a number of conservatives, along with numerous conservative interest groups), and he estimates that he has the required two-thirds majority in line to pass it.

Zero Tolerance Discipline Programs Are Being Expelled

In recent years, a zero-tolerance disciplinary model has dominated American schools.  Zero-tolerance measures emerged in the mid-nineties and grew significantly to include a broad range of minor infractions in the heyday of “tough on crime” policies.  In some respects, these policies can be thought of as mandatory minimum sentences for students.  A typical zero-tolerance district in Texas, for example, may hand out suspensions and criminal citations for anything from sleeping to swearing to carrying Advil to chewing gum.  Texas, however, does appear to be changing, and The Washington Post is reporting that other states appear to be changing too.

According to the Post, the American Psychological Association researched zero-tolerance disciplinary frameworks and found no evidence that these policies improve school safety.  In fact, the lengthy school suspensions associated with such policies correlate significantly with lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates.

States have come to realize that such draconian measures do not prevent further disciplinary infractions, and may actually exacerbate the problems.  The Post article indicates that districts are therefore shifting to a more prevention-based approach. While this approach will not eliminate suspensions, it should greatly reduce their number because such measures are designed not to punish a problem child, but to prevent him or her from becoming one in the first place.  Now administrators will have a wide variety of punishment options available to them, and they have the benefit of choosing one that is appropriate to the harm done.

The Washington, DC area in particular has seen major improvements, specifically in the Northern Virginia districts.  Suspensions have plummeted and been replaced by more effective measures such as parent conferences, behavior contracts, and after-school sessions.  Not only do such measures keep kids in school and learning, but they actually help to improve behavior instead of marking children as criminals and throwing them out of school with an unfounded hope that they will just “straighten up.”

Geriatric Incarceration at Virginia’s Deerfield Correctional Center

Last month, The Washington Post ran an interesting story on the Deerfield Correctional Center, a geriatric prison in Virginia.  Geriatric incarceration is extremely expensive.  According to The Post,  ”[i]t costs $28,800 annually to house an inmate at Deerfield, compared with the $19,000 it costs at most of the state’s medium-security prisons.”

Several states have rightly experimented with geriatric release programs, but these proposals must be approached with caution.  In some cases, often involving sex offenses, prisoners did not become geriatric in prison — rather they entered as geriatrics.  Reformers must also realize that there is a moral component in addition to the financial one.  As a commenter on The Atlantic Monthly’s website wrote in response to the article: “Often the impact of the offender’s action reverberates in the victim’s life well beyond the time the offender serves.  And often the only sense of vindication they feel is knowing that the person who hurt them will not only not be able to hurt anyone else, but will not be free to enjoy their ‘golden years.’”

None of this means that geriatric parole is a bad idea.  It simply means that as with any parole program, thoughtful distinctions must be made between those whom society feels are deserving of parole and those whom it feels are not deserving.