Friday, April 4, 2014

Virginia, Give Me More to Love You For

By Amanda Petteruti

It’s April in Virginia – the flowers are blooming, the trees are flowering, and the General Assembly is still arguing about the state’s budget. Funding for Medicaid may be the primary issue of contention this year, but there should be another issue. This year, for the second time since 2009, a billion dollars of that budget is dedicated to locking people up.

In the time that my family has lived in Virginia, the commonwealth has not outwardly struggled with finances the way some other states have. To cut budgets, many states have looked hard at their spending on incarceration. Virginia has not had to choose to do that. With growing concerns about supporting mental health services, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, improving transportation, ensuring high quality education, and protecting the environment, it is time to rethink how it spends its money. As a homeowner and a taxpayer in Virginia, it is important how the commonwealth spends my money.

But an argument about money only gets us part-way. The reality is that the commonwealth continues to put more people in prison, keep them there longer, and then refuse to release people who are eligible even though there is no evidence that incarceration makes us safer in the long run. While most of the rest of the country is reducing the number of people behind bars, Virginia is seeing its first increase in five years. As of 2012, it had the 15th highest state imprisonment rate and had the 38th highest prison population.

While Mississippi quietly reformed its sentencing guidelines to be closer to those on the book in the 1960s, Virginia added mandatory minimums. Colorado and Washington State have legalized marijuana, thus reducing arrests for drug offenses; Virginia has increased drug arrests. In Kansas, people in prison get a 60-day credit on their sentence for participating in certain programs, while Virginia has one of the lowest parole release rates in the country. Clearly, Virginia is a bit behind the times.

The people that are most harmed by the continued investment in incarceration and arrests are people of color, specifically African Americans. African Americans are 20 percent of the commonwealth’s population, but make up 61 percent of the people in prison. And while all racial and ethnic groups report using drugs at approximately the same rates, 72 percent of people in prison for a drug offense are African American.

I have a young son who’ll likely call himself a Virginian. To give him the sort of safety and well-being that he and every citizen in Virginia deserve, the commonwealth should invest good schools, modern transportation, a beautiful environment, and mental health care for anyone that needs it. More corrections and policing won’t get us anything but higher costs, more prisons, and damaged people and communities.

Virginia is for lovers, after all. Let’s keep it that way.

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