Saturday, October 9, 2010

Do we Need to Correct our Thinking About Corrections?

Martha note: Below is a Saturday morning, WMRA blog extra from Harvey Yoder.
As a a long time advocate of criminal justice reform, I was heartened by something our new governor Bob McDonnell included in his January 10 Inaugural Address to the Joint Houses:

“Tough sentences are only half of the equation in making Virginia safer. We must provide real opportunities to prisoners to turn their lives around, and to become responsible and contributing members of society when their sentences have concluded. A failure to do so only leads to more crime, and more victims. I will work with faith-based and community organizations to create an effective prisoner re-entry program to keep people out of jails and prisons. It’s smart government, and will save money.”

These are bold words from a governor of a state with the 8th highest per capita incarceration rate in the US, the nation with the distinction of holding more prisoners than any other country in the world, including China.

In 1982 Virginia had just under 10,000 inmates in its prison system. Today we have nearly four times as many behind bars, just under 40,000. To accommodate this increase, the commonwealth has had to invest over a billion dollars in more prison space in the past 25 years, and the Virginia Department of Corrections now requires over a billion dollars a year of the state’s stretched budget to operate.

In its 2009 session, the General Assembly, with Governor Tim Kaine’s endorsement, approved the appointment of a special Task Force to develop recommendations for alternative punishments for nonviolent, lower risk offenders. Governor McDonnell, to his credit, is continuing to support its work.

There will be a free public forum at the Massanutten Regional Library in Harrisonburg on Monday, October 11, from noon to 1:30 to discuss some of the preliminary findings of the Task Force. Leading the conversation will be Mr. Sherman Lea of Roanoke, the Regional Director for Community Corrections, Western Region, Ms. Tessie Lam, 39th District Chief Probation and Parole Officer, and Mr. Peter Van Acker, Superintendent of the Harrisonburg Diversion Center.

Among the initial proposals to be discussed are more flexible sentencing guidelines that could result in shorter jail stays for many nonviolent offenders, alternative sanctions for technical probation violations, more work release programs and in-home incarcerations, and an expanded number of Day Reporting Centers to provide accountability, counseling, and drug treatment for substance abuse offenders. Changes like these would result in lower costs and having more offenders holding down jobs to support their families and to pay off their debts to society.

In these times of tough budget realities, all of these alternatives need to be considered. And one day we may begin to realize it doesn’t make good sense to keep thousands of nonviolent offenders in concrete warehouses for ever-longer sentences, just as in the 60’s and 70’s we began downsizing our huge institutions for the mentally ill, returning as many of them as possible to their communities, where they were offered the kind of individual care, supervision and treatment they needed. We learned that this was not only more effective--and more humane--but also less costly.

This is a kind of common sense approach I believe can result in reforms that progressives and conservatives alike can support.
 -- Harvey Yoder is licensed professional counselor and a member of the board of Gemeinschaft Home, a re-entry and drug rehab facility for ex-offenders in Harrisonburg.

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent and thoughtful post about a positive direction government can and should take. While government can feel oppressive, overbearing and inflexible at times, it can also be humane and forgiving. After all, we are the government, in theory at least. Shouldn't it reflect us?