18 December 2008

How Will Budget Cuts Affect Virginia Criminal Punishment Systems?

I reported before that Virginia's budget shortfall looked like it was going to reach $3-3.5 billion. The Times-Dispatch is giving a lower estimated deficit at only $2.9 billion. Governor Kaine has made his proposal to the General Assembly as to what cuts should be made. Here's the part which pertains to the criminal justice system:
Kaine also outlined a policy change to save money by reducing the prison population -- specifically, by not jailing people for minor technical violations of parole, and by allowing inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to be released up to 90 days early.
. . .
Kaine's latest proposed round of cuts -- the fourth since 2007 -- would:
• cut budgets for the Virginia State Police, local police, local sheriff's offices and commonwealth's attorneys offices by 7 percent;
. . .
Republicans also questioned Kaine's proposed policy change to let nonviolent prisoners out up to 90 days early, which would save an estimated $5 million a year. Currently the director of the Department of Corrections can authorize release up to 30 days early.

"One of the advances of the last 13 years was the abolition of parole," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax, one of three GOP lawmakers seeking the party's nomination to run for attorney general.

"This breaks with the public trust."
My questions are two-fold:

1. What are "minor technical violations of parole?"

First, we don't have parole in Virginia (unless your conviction was prior to 1995). We have probation violations. Yeah, I know: picky, picky, picky . . . Still, if the governor only plans to affect people on parole it's going to be a pretty small number.

I realize there may be a number of small probation violations which could fall under this denomination. However, it's been my experience that probation officers don't usually bring people to court for their first minor violation, or even their second - quite possibly even the third. Part of this is giving people enough rope to hang themselves. Part of it (at least where I am at) seems to be sympathy and an actual desire to try to help people. Part of it is that judges will not look favorably upon efforts to bring every little piddly thing into court. There is usually a string of minor violations which come to the point that they are cumulatively at least a mid-level probation violation.

I'm just going to assume that the "technical" part of "minor technical violations of parole" is just a fudge word. The definition of "technical violation" is going to vary from person to person and place to place. Is it a technical violation if the probationer never checks in with the probation office and avoids the attempts of the probation officers to contact him? How about if the probationer refuses to pay his restitution? His fines and costs? If he fails a drug test? Two? Three? Six? In the end "technical" just means that whoever makes the decision can draw the line concerning minor probation violations wherever he wants to.

2. I'm also curious as to what the 90 days will affect. Anyone who does any work in Virginia courts can tell you that it can be pretty hard to get more than 90 days incarceration. Since misdemeanor sentences are halved (50% of sentenced time is served) a defendant actually has to have been sentenced to 6 months in jail to serve a 90 day sentence. Go visit your local Virginia District Court on the day of its busiest criminal docket. Watch to see how many actually get 6 months. It ain't going to be a large portion of the defendants. I just can't picture all the jail populations shrinking to 10-15 guys who were the very few who got more than 6 months on a misdemeanor.

As for lower felonies, most simple felonies (drug possession, larceny, destruction of property, forgery) already require that the defendant have at least a prior conviction or two (or many simultaneous convictions) before Virginia's sentencing guidelines require more than probation. Those who do have the priors to get time serve 85% of that time. So, if my math is right, a defendant must get more than 105 days - 3 1/2 months - or she would take a trip to the jail and be released for having 90 days or less to serve.

I just don't see things actually working that way. If anybody has an idea how this is actually planned to work out drop me a line.

No comments: