Looking Toward New Justice in the Old Dominion

A new survey of Virginians finds that most residents of the Old Dominion view their justice system as too costly and too detrimental to restored citizens upon their re-entry to society. It’s no surprise, then, that proponents of reform filled the room as the Charles Koch Institute, in conjunction with Prison Fellowship, brought together an array of experts and decision makers, including Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, to discuss how to move towards a more just commonwealth.

Christian Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and the day’s moderator, shared that he first realized criminal justice was a pressing issue when he saw its effects in the education system. (Braunlich has previously served as president of the Virginia Board of Education.) Of the collateral consequences misdemeanors have on Virginia teachers seeking employment later in life, Braunlich said, “Permanent punishment without means for redemption is not how I define justice.”

That sentiment was echoed by Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy for Prison Fellowship. “The point we’re making is that this is a values discussion. … The value at stake here is human life,” DeRoche observed, before adding that the way Virginia’s criminal justice system currently operates “is literally the opposite of what our values should be.”

Still, some are concerned that many of the policies reformers advocate would sacrifice public safety. But that fear is misplaced, argued Joe Luppino-Esposito, a policy analyst for Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “The answer is not to just lock them up,” Luppino-Esposito told the audience. “Locking people up for $150,000 a year, with a 75 percent recidivism rate, does not help public safety.”

Problems don’t just exist inside the system; the barriers to opportunity facing restored citizens can be daunting and, in many cases, insurmountable. “A felony is a big brand that follows you the rest of your life. … The number of opportunities plummet,” said Eric Alston, senior policy and research analyst for the Charles Koch Institute. “Incarceration should be the punishment of last resort because it inherently tears apart families and communities.”

Martin D. Brown, a former special advisor to the governor for family reintegration of state offenders, agreed. Brown lamented the inability of those in the current system to seek redemption, saying the state seeks retribution over restoration. “The state gets everything they can out of the offender. … Often, the victim is looking for a restorative process while the state plays this kabuki dance,” Brown argued. As a result, “we’ve separated families and communities from these individuals, making it that much more difficult to restore citizens.”

“Just the idea that someone can repay their debt … has gotten lost,” added DeRoche.

While it remains to be seen if Virginia will turn toward a justice policy that reflects the views of its citizens, those in attendance were optimistic about where conversations on reform are heading. Anne Holton, the Virginia secretary of education, said data from the Institute’s poll showed reform is “common sense.”

“This isn’t a bipartisan issue, it’s a cross-partisan issue,” Holton said. Delegate Dave LaRock, who hosted the panel, added that while justice reform “is a multi-multi-faceted issue … it’s just a matter of time” before reform occurs.

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