Virginia should decriminalize drug-related behavior and treat drug abuse as a public health issue, while increasing educational resources and opportunities in low-income communities of color in order to improve public safety and lower the state's prison population, according to a recent report from the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute (JPI).
"Virginia's justice system is expensive, ineffective and inequitable," the November 2013 JPI report said, and "the state continues to suffer under misguided policies and practices of the past."
Despite a decline in the state's overall crime rates over the past 20 years, Virginia still spends almost $3 billion annually—or 7.7% of its total expenditures—on "arresting and confining its citizens with little to show apart from high incarceration rates and strained budgets," wrote the report's author, JPI senior researcher Spike Bradford.
Virginia had the 5th-lowest and 8th-lowest violent and property crime rates, respectively, in the U.S. in 2011, but had the 13th-highest incarceration rates and 11th-highest prison costs. JPI attributed the contradictory data to law enforcement arrest quotas—which help secure federal and state police funding—that now depend on "low-level, nonviolent drug violations," rather than serious crimes.
In 2012, JPI reported, Virginia arrested 38,349 people on drug charges, which was a 51% increase from 2002. Thanks to tough-on-crime laws instituted by former Virginia Gov. George Allen in the early- to mid-1990s, drug offenders have been drawn "into a spiral of criminal justice involvement" that only exacerbates threats to public safety, Bradford wrote.
Criminalizing drug use "is an ineffective way of addressing the potential health needs of the arrested people," the report said. "Jails and prisons, particularly crowded ones, provide very little treatment or re-entry preparation for people who may have substance abuse disorders."
Citing shifting national attitudes toward drug use and treatment- including Washington state and Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is now legal—JPI recommended that Virginia "should join in the public health approach to issues of drug abuse in society."
The report also highlighted that "people of color, particularly African Americans, are over-represented at each stage of the Virginia criminal justice system." While blacks make up 20% of the state's population, they comprise 47.4% of all arrests—including 76.2% of robbery arrests and 52.2% of aggravated assault arrests—and 60.8% of the state's prison population.
"For every white person incarcerated in Virginia," JPI reported, "six African Americans are behind bars."
To address the racial disparity in the state's prisons, JPI said that Virginia should "target reductions in disproportionate minority contact and increase the use of community-based alternatives to incarceration."
A key component of correcting such disparities within the prison system, the report said, is increasing educational opportunities for those incarcerated, "both as a crime prevention strategy and as a component to prison-based programs that seek to promote successful re-entry."
"Changing the dynamics of the education-incarceration equation," JPI said, "requires the political will to invest in public safety strategies that promote educational opportunities, especially for poor communities of color."
Source: "Virginia's Justice System: Expensive, Ineffective and Unfair," Justice Policy Institute, November 2013, www.justicepolicy.org
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