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January 4, 2009

Effective op-ed about dealing with prison costs coming due

Anthony Barkow, who is the executive director of NYU's terrific Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, has an important op-ed today in the Washington Post.  This op-ed highlights the challenges that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and so many other governors are now facing as their prison costs continue to expand while state resources continue to contract.  Here are excerpts:

Virginia is facing a fiscal emergency.  The commonwealth faces a nearly $3 billion shortfall this year.  At the same time, the growth of Virginia's prison budget has dramatically outpaced other spending items over the past decade. Spending on incarceration consumes more than $1 billion each year. In response to the state's fiscal crisis, and in recognition of the explosion in prison spending, Gov. Tim Kaine recently proposed [front page, Dec. 18] releasing some prisoners 90 days before the end of their sentences.

The governor's proposal is limited to nonviolent offenders who have been model inmates, and merely enlarges the period of early release to 90 days from the present 30 days.... But state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who is running for governor,. has criticized Kaine's idea through his spokesman.

But Kaine has it exactly right.  Tired, tough-on-crime rhetoric says that all offenders should be locked up for as long as possible.  But this approach simply doesn't work as a method of governance.... The result is burgeoning prison populations and spiking prison costs....

But now, the economic downturn has brought criminal justice expenditures to a collision with reality.  Sometimes, crisis is opportunity.  Virginia can't blindly devote money to incarceration.  It needs to differentiate between those who deserve and need to remain in jail, such as violent offenders, and those who don't, such as nonviolent offenders who pose no danger to society and who will serve or may have already served substantial prison time.

After all, when resources are limited, spending money to incarcerate the nonviolent, non-dangerous offender means less money to spend on other priorities. What other priorities should lose funding?  Schools?  Efforts to put more police on the streets?  Bigger cuts in these areas will increase crime....

It takes a brave governor to recognize that sound government sometimes means having the guts to tell people that the criminal justice system has gone too far.  Kaine's critics can use all the tough-on-crime rhetoric they want to try to get elected.  But Kaine actually has to govern.  And with this proposal, he's governing wisely.

This op-ed highlights various political and practical realities that have been the subject of discussion on this blog for years.  I  concur with all that it says, except the for concluding notion that a governor has to be "brave" to tell the truth about criminal justice expenditures.  I do not accept or support the notion that leaders are being "brave" when making responsible public policy decisions. 

Rather than calling Governor Tim Kane brave, I think those politicians who continue to espouse irresponsible tough-on-crime rhetoric should be called out as cowards.  The modern sentencing reform movement was driven in part by a call for "truth in sentencing," and a commitment to truth should extend to all those politician who are eager to talk tough and then ignore the hard economic and social realities that clearly follow such talk.

Some related posts: 

January 4, 2009 at 01:53 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Jan 5, 2009 7:22:57 PM



Just want to give you a shout out. You have been an early, clear, consistent, passionate voice in favor of humane and cost-effective sentencing reform. While I'm not sure the humane part is catching on, the cost argument appears to be making some progress in states from California to Kentucky to Virginia, and I suspect many more states as the economy worsens. While those who break laws ought be punished, we imprison way too many people for way too long in this country. Thanks for being a voice in the wilderness on this. Looks like tough-on-crime may one day give way to smart-on-crime. Your contribution is duly noted.

Posted by: dm | Jan 4, 2009 2:24:28 PM

Thanks for the always appreciated shout-out!

Posted by: Douglas A. Berman | Jan 4, 2009 9:01:50 PM

We also imprison people for far shorter time periods than we should.

Posted by: | Jan 4, 2009 11:52:37 PM

I have been charged with a class one mistomeanor crime and the investagotor handeling the case made shure that I got the max. sentence avaiable. one year in jail. From what I know I would only have to spend six months in jail. My question is that with Tim's new law, will i qualify for the early release program where as I will not be going to prison, but a large regional jail. I also have a few leagal questions, that would rattle the cages of corrupt commonwelth attorines if any one is interested post and let me know.

Posted by: James Hackney | Jan 8, 2009 7:43:44 PM

Just to calify, this charge was in VA. And how can just an avarage person look up court cases in a state, by useing only the type of crime commited? Any help would be greatly appr. thanks

Posted by: James | Jan 8, 2009 8:26:52 PM

I just pulled 8 and one half yrs, in Va, Prison over Oxycontin 4pills God bless the politician I find Broke ,in the soup line . I wont have to wait .Will I????

Posted by: kenneth w johnson | Feb 5, 2009 5:53:46 PM

I was just wondering if the new law had passed or not? My fiance is in Shelton jail rightn now. He got 81/2 months on a year and a day. He doesnt have any major infractions in therel. Will he get to be released 90 days early? Thanks!

Posted by: marquita | Jun 12, 2009 1:11:25 PM

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