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Most states have enacted sentencing reforms since 2007, but Virginia has been slow to join the effort.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
In a polarized gubernatorial campaign consumed by attacks, there have been few meaningful policy proposals, leaving voters to wonder what either major party candidate would devote his four-year term to accomplishing.
But one issue that made a brief appearance this month offers some hope of a unifying goal that could be achieved regardless of whether Republican Ken Cuccinelli or Democrat Terry McAuliffe becomes the next governor.
Neither man has identified sentencing reform as a priority, yet both say they favor a re-examination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses. Cuccinelli garnered a smattering of headlines when he expressed concerns about the high cost of incarceration, at $25,000 annually per inmate, and the disparity in sentencing for powdered versus crack cocaine.
More than half of the states have already enacted sentencing reforms since 2007, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. They range from Democratic California, which curbed its infamous “three strikes” law, to Republican-led Georgia, which eased mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes.
At the federal level, the U.S. Justice Department recently announced it would no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders who are not affiliated with a gang.
Virginia has been a leader in “tough on crime” legislation since the 1990s, when former Gov. George Allen restricted use of parole and embarked on a prison construction spree. The state has been slower to examine the fiscal effects of those policies, although Allen in recent years has been challenged by some conservatives who see his legacy of iron bars and razor wire as an unacceptably expensive monument to Big Government.
That debate isn’t unique to Virginia, and indeed reform movements elsewhere have often been driven by conservative individuals and groups, including Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Family Research Council. Many of them previously advocated for tougher sentences and prison privatization but have soured on those tactics as inefficient and burdensome on taxpayers.
In Virginia, legislators in both parties are guilty of proposing bills that ratchet up sentences for the crime du jour so they can include the achievement in campaign brochures. Criminal law committees stacked with would-be attorneys general loath to take a “soft on crime” vote act as enablers.
Will the next governor make it his mission to replace posturing with pragmatism? It may not be the issue that provides a winning edge on Election Day, but the victor may well find the time is ripe for reforming the state’s criminal justice laws.
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