20 December 2010

You Say Lower Crime Rate Like It's a Bad Thing

Via Simple Justice, I tripped over a new website, Right on Crime. I went over to check it out and it seemed like most sites of this type. It's well put together, but the content isn't really for anyone looking to actually think about the issues. Basically, it seems to be about punishing the guilty, supporting victims, and saving money. All of these goals are laudable, but the third seems not to fit too well with the first and second.

I was curious about one thing. The site has a section on the right where there is a map showing various highlighted states where "initiatives" for reform have been put forward. I was curious as to what reforms are being touted by a site which is self consciously from the right. We've already had victim rights written into the law and done away with parole. So, I went to the Virginia page.

The good news is that "Virginia ranked 41st in index crimes, 42nd in violent crimes and 40th in property crimes per 100,000 resident population." How did Virginia get such a low crime rate? It could have something to do with the fact that Virginia has a 9% higher incarceration rate than other states. BTW, I know there is someone out there who can cite statistics "proving" that the high incarceration rate isn't the cause of the low crime rate. Of course, there are approximately 40 states out there with lower incarceration rates and higher crime rates, so I'm going to have to pull out the lies, d@mn lies, & statistics quote. At the very least, Virginia's in an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" situation.

When you read the page it becomes evident that the Big Bad here is that criminals are actually being made to go to prison. This is a strange position for a right of center site to take and even stranger is the reliance of this Virginia section of the Right on Crime site on a solidly left of center site which is dedicated to reducing prisoners' sentences.

As far as it goes, the site feeds us the at least partially erroneous line that the increase in incarceration is due to the abolition of parole in Virginia. What's never discussed when people raise this point is that when the General Assembly abolished parole it set in place sentencing guideline which generally reduced sentences to about what they would have been if the defendant had gotten parole. There are exceptions, such as when a judge sentences above the guidelines or those on pre-1995 sentences which would have resulted in parole sentences (but which the parole boards are very stingy to give out anymore), and these would tend to raise the amount of time someone spends in prison. However, it is doubtful that these are enough to account for most people incarcerated.

We are also told that "Virginia has only 1 in 94 adults is under community supervision compared with the national average of 1 in 45.[x] Combining these two statistics – a high incarceration rate and a low community supervision rate—shows that 52 percent of Virginia’s adult correctional population is behind bars.[xi] Accordingly, this is the fourth highest rate in the country. Compared to other states, Virginia is using more incarceration and less community supervision."

The terrible evil in this? Keeping criminals off the street costs money. The solution? Put more offenders out on the street and throw them in jail immediately every time they violate for 30 days.

I've heard this called "shock violation" before and I'm not actually opposed to the theory of it for people who are on probation (although I do not believe it should be relied upon as an excuse to put someone on probation rather than giving him the sentence he should receive). I'm a big believer in telling someone where the line is and the punishment he will get if he crosses it. Personally, I think that every single probationer should be informed as part of his initial plea agreement what the punishment for any violations of probation would be. I believe that a potential offender who knows that he will be punished is more likely to toe the line than one who thinks he might be punished. While I favor heavier sentences, a 30 day sentence could do the job if it was administered quickly and with no nonsense for each violation.

The problem is the immediacy requirement. The three violations I think are most prevalent are new convictions, failing drug tests, and absconding. None of these lend themselves to immediate punishment. New convictions really shouldn't be limited to 30 days as a probation violation (except, perhaps misdemeanor traffic offenses or citations). Even if they were so limited the immediacy could only be achieved if the 30 days were imposed as soon as the arrest took place and I doubt anyone is going to really push for that without a conviction. Failing a drug test is the violation most likely to achieve the immediacy requirement. Most people seem to fail and admit usage to their probation officer. However, this may not be the outcome everyone really wants. Currently, when a probationer fails a test or two the probation officer usually tries to put him in a program to help him deal with the problem. In a working shock violation system that goes out the window and the officer should arrest as soon as a single test is failed. Another issue is the testing itself. The dipstick method is not absolutely determinative. Therefore, when a probationer denies use despite failing the initial test, a sample is sent to a lab for more reliable tests. This means that the system can be gamed. A probationer who does not want to go to jail immediately can deny. Then the officer and judge are faced with the choice of immediacy or accuracy. Finally, there is absconding and the reason that someone who has absconded can't be immediately punished is obvious.

I don't see anything offered on this site working well.

Nevertheless, if you want a solution that will save Virginia money I've got one. Exile. Every non-violent felon in Virginia should get a pass on his first offense. He gets probation without incarceration - pretty much like it is now. The second non-violent offense he is exiled from Virginia. After conviction he is held at a jail. Within three weeks an unmarked, nondescript van arrives at the jail on a random day at a random time. The offender, and all others of his ilk, is dressed in his civilian clothes and put in a cage in the back of the van. The driver has a computer in the front that chooses a random town at least three states away and 2 hours from an interstate. The driver drives to that spot, hits a button which opens the back of the van, and Virginia no longer has to deal with the offender. Of course, some will be tempted to try to return, but the punishment for returning would be something rather horrific, like being dropped off randomly in the middle of a random northern blight city or, for the worst offenders, being shipped to Texas. I think this would save Virginia a lot of money, lower our incarceration rate, and probably result in an even greater reduction in Virginia's crime rate.

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