Commentary: Virginia lawmakers ‘medieval’ in world view

I’m convinced that our Virginia legislators are stuck right in the middle of the Middle Ages in their view of the world. Here’s why I think so.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently used an executive order to return voting rights to ex-offenders who have served their sentences and returned to society. Virginia legislators cried “foul!” One insisted, “they don’t deserve to vote.” If there is a morality test for voting, who among us would pass?

While these frozen-in-time representatives push back against criminal justice reform in Virginia, the U.S. Congress, in a bi-partisan effort working with the Obama administration, is crafting a Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

The Georgia legislature is in the midst of criminal justice reform that would, among other things, create charter schools in prisons and shield the record of first offenders.

The Louisiana House of Representatives voted to make it easier for ex-offenders to apply for state jobs.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 38 states and the District of Columbia automatically return the right to vote to most ex-felons after they have completed their sentence. In Maine and Vermont, felons cast their vote while still in prison.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have declared prison reform a priority.

Hillary Clinton has committed to addressing the problem of a grossly unjust justice system focusing especially on the treatment of women in prison. The U.S. incarcerates nearly one third of all female prisoners worldwide. Their incarceration results in children being rotated from one foster home to another, the break-up of families and long term trauma for hundreds of thousands of children.

So where are we, here in Virginia, regarding prison reform? According to the Justice Policy Institute, Virginia spends close to $1 billion each year on prisons — $3 billion when we combine prisons, jails and the judiciary. We have the eighth highest rate of incarceration in the United States and rank 11th in money spent on corrections. A recent proposal to reinstate the parole system, which would allow for releasing prison inmates on the basis of good behavior, was rejected. This law would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, annually, and allowed these men and women to return to society as productive, taxpaying citizens. (Virginia spends an average of $25,000 annually per inmate).

In addressing the tragedy of substance abuse, we emphasize imprisonment over treatment. In short, Virginia ranks near the bottom in a nationwide bipartisan effort to reform a criminal justice system that is the world’s worst. The U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than anywhere else.

Are our legislators on their own version of “ice”? Why so intransigent? Their decisions are costing Virginia taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. They prioritize warehousing people who have gotten on the wrong side of the law over allocating needed funds for children’s education. They ignore the destruction of lives that occurs during and after incarceration – including the ongoing costs to society.

The legislators charged Gov. McAuliffe with playing politics by re-enfranchising people who would likely vote Democratic. The childhood taunt, “it takes one to know one” comes to mind. As members of the white, middle and upper classes, they have chosen to lock up and disempower minorities. Now their children and grandchildren, who struggle with the scourge of substance abuse, are experiencing the appalling conditions of our state jails and prisons.

It is time for us to join forces as members of a moral and humane society and insist that our Virginia legislators join the rest of the country in promoting criminal justice reform.

Laura Crites is a Mount Jackson resident.