12) Kate Mishkin, “She Got Back Her Right to Vote, Now She Wants to Help Others on the Same Path,” The Virginia-Pilot, p.10, June 25, 2015

11) “Texas: Identify Options to Generate Savings and Increase Public Safety,” Justice Reinvestment, http://justicereinvestment.org/states/texas/how-tx/provide-tx.

10) “North Carolina: Implementing the Strategy,” Justice Reinvestment, http://justicereinvestment.org/states/north_carolina/how-nc/.

9) Todd Clear, “A Private-Sector, Incentives Based Model for Justice Reinvestment,” Criminology and Public Policy 10, no. 3 (2011): 585-608

8) The Political Participation Group, “Captive Constituents: Prison Based Gerry mandering and the Distortion of Our Democracy,” May 2010, www.naacpldf.org/files/publications/captive %20 constituents %20 report.pdf.

7) Nicole D Porter, “Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2010,” The Sentencing Project, Washington DC, 2010, www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/vr_expandingthevotefinaladdendum.pdf.

6) John Schmitt, Chris Warner, and Sarika Gupta, “The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2010, 8, www.cepr.net/documents /publications/incarceration-2010-06-pdf.

5) John Schmitt, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta, “The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, June 2010, www.cepr.net/documents/publications/incarceration-2010-06. pdf.

4) Allison Lawrence, “Probation and Parole Violations; State Responses,” National Conference of State Legislators, 2008, www.ncsl.org/print/cj/violations report. pdf.

3) King and Mauer, Distorted Priorities, I

2) Michael Tonroy, Punishing Race: A Continuing American Dilemma (New York): Oxford University Press, 2012), p 54

1) Ryan S King and Marc Mauer, Distorted Priorities: Drug Offenders in State Prisons (Washington DC: The Sentencing Project, 2002) Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports, www.fbi.gov/anpit-us/ucr/ucr 

A Case For Civic Reintegration and Justice Reinvestment Legislation in Virginia

The size of the carceral state and the proportion of citizens it affects has surpassed the scope of what any citizen can consider to be marginal. Never before has American government and the polity exhibited so strong an urge to punish, or so vast a network of institutions dedicated to controlling, confining, and supervising citizens. In the early 1980s, crime began to take up more time in the state and federal legislatures, eventually passing an enormous amount of legislation reforming state criminal codes. In waging parallel wars on crime and drugs, the federal government began a decades long program of financial support to the states for crime control, thereby providing billions of dollars for prison construction and police professionalization. In doing so, Congress effectively incentivized states to move toward a more punitive approach to crime control. For instance, the federal government urged states to incarcerate offenders for longer stretches by making imprisonment cheaper through "truth in sentencing" block grants.

Early release from prison was largely abolished; mandatory minimum penalties were passed for a wide array of offenses, youth were tried and incarcerated as adults, and states enacted criminal code reforms that increased the severity of sentences and added sentence enhancements for the presence of certain factors in the commission of a crime. This marked a radical break with history.  In the past, confinement was primarily reserved for the most violent, and prison stays over five years were rare.   By nearly every measure, we live in a more punitive society now than we did fifty years ago.  In the realm of criminal justice, the United States embarked on one of the largest public policy experiments in our history.   

In conjunction with the ongoing war on crime, the war on drugs gained steam. The nation's cities witnessed a drastic increase in law enforcement activity, compiling over 31 million drug arrests since 1980.  From 1980 to 2000 arrests for drug offenses nearly tripled. (1)  Thus, state prison inmates serving time for drugs surged from 16,000 in 1979 to 266,000 by 2006, a seventeen fold increase, even though the prevalence of drug abuse had not substantially increased. (2)   The majority of these inmates were not high-level dealers or violent offenders. In fact, a 2002 study found that fully 58 percent of people serving time for drug offenses had no history of violent crime. (3)  In addition to drug offenders, large prison populations are now sustained by the expanding number of ex-offenders readmitted for probation and parole violations. Alarmingly, according to the National Council of State Legislators, more than one third of all state prison admissions in 2006 were individuals being returned to prison as a result of probation and parole violations rather than for new criminal convictions.  (4)

Because they serve longer sentences, violent offenders still make up a large share of prison inmates at any given time. However, that has shifted over time.   In 1980 non-violent drug offenders accounted for less than 10 percent of the prison and jail population.  By 2010 they composed roughly one quarter, with non-violent offenders overall making up more than 60% of the incarcerated. While there were only 3 percent more violent crimes in 2008, than in 1980, and about 20 percent fewer property crimes, the total prison and jail population grew during this period more than 350 percent. (5)   This reality effectively debunks the myth that the majority of today's prison population is comprised of violent offenders.  If incarceration rates had actually tracked violent crime rates the incarceration rate would have peaked at 317 per 100,000 in 1992, and fallen to 227 per 100,000 by 2008-less than one third the actual level and about the same level as in 1980. (6)

The Commonwealth of Virginia boasts one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.  In 2010 Virginia's incarceration rate was 487 per 100,000.  Sixty two percent of these prisoners were Black, compared to 20 percent of the population overall. The state eliminated discretionary parole in 1995.  So offenders now serve the maximum amount of their sentence before release and are offered nominal if any assistance upon discharge from custody.  Virginia's 35 + prisons are planted in the outer reaches of the rural landscape, where visitors, at least until recently, would report losing cell phone service long before reaching prison gates.   Virginia also remains one of the two states, along with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, to permanently disenfranchise convicted felons.   The states particularly draconian felon disenfranchisement policies result in a high proportion of ineligible voters, meaning that it excludes 20 percent of its Black residents from voting for life, placing Virginia near the top for the nation. (7)

It is clear that in recent practice the main responses to crime in America have been primarily punitive:  gang interventions, severe sentences for felony crimes, drug zones, habitual offender statutes and sentence enhancements.  Mostly absent from this policy agenda were interventions that might have addressed the decimation of urban and rural economies, educational disparities, mental health care deficiencies, as well as other socio-economic insecurities that contribute to criminality.  Distilled down, the polity's focus and priority has become the punishment of crime rather than the protection of citizens from it through efforts toward the abatement of its preconditions.

 As the custodial population continues to grow, so too does political inequality. The public at large should be concerned about diminishing engagement of custodial citizens for the simple fact that their ranks are growing at breakneck speed. Now numbering over 2 million, if the incarcerated population of America could form its own state, it would qualify for five votes in the Electoral College. (8)

By nature of their incarceration, offenders are withdrawn from voting and other forms of participation in civic life. It seems strange, then, that even with the increased public focus on re-entry in recent years, few models exist for returning offenders not only to jobs and families, but also to neighborhoods, communities, and the political life of the nation. Employment preparation is the cornerstone of the re-entry agenda and most pre-release programming is concerned with the job application process. However, policymakers and researchers have devoted considerably less attention to the process by which ex- offenders reconnect with civil society.

Civic reintegration is an idea whose time has come, and programs should be evaluated and developed as compliments to re-entry initiatives that have so far focused primarily on individual needs like employment and drug treatment.  However, civic reintegration should begin prior to the intense re-entry phase. Community voice and engagement are vital, even during punishment.

What might a program designed around re-orienting prisoners to community and political life look like? Consider an existing pilot program in New Orleans. Americorps has begun a program for ex-felons called Cornerstone Builders. The program trains ex-offenders as Americorps members who recruit, train, and manage teams of volunteers. The program is thus mutually beneficial to the individual and the community. Teams work in the community to develop food pantries, clean vacant lots, develop community gardens and parks, organize neighborhood activities, and do community outreach. In return the ex-offenders are given a stipend, job, housing assistance, and mentors. They also learn how to use computers, create resumes, and develop other transferable pro-social and professional skills.

Another recent program is the Community Volunteer Project initiated by the Community Programs Division (CPD) of the New Jersey State Parole Board. Recognizing that ex-offenders were having great difficulty finding work and becoming productive members of their communities, the CPD established the program to help ex-offenders acquire skills and work experiences through volunteering. Social service organizations that have agreed to participate take on ex-offenders as volunteers. A certain amount of volunteer time then entitles ex-offenders to earn vouchers for furniture and clothing, as well as a certificate from the Department of Labor that shows they have completed community volunteer work. Most important, volunteering with an established organization potentially provides a source of networking, referrals, and recommendations for long-standing employment. Beyond the potential these civic reintegration programs have to link ex-offenders with later employment, the great potential is in the prospect of building community social capital and engaging ex-offenders in pro-social civic work.

Another key that may lead to reversing the mass imprisonment trend may depend not only on employing a more proactive and rehabilitative philosophy of criminal correction, but also on promoting viable and legitimate economic opportunities for ex-offenders and their communities. We can outline some of the ways to direct the criminal justice system toward such change. If we agree that there exists a recurring negative feedback loop from incarceration to communities to incarceration, we can also create a positive feedback loop, one that reroutes incarcerated people and invests in their communities, and through these two mechanisms, interrupts the negative community-incarceration loop in the long run.

One manner in which to accomplish this would be through the principles and practice of justice reinvestment. An idea pioneered by the Justice Mapping Institute, justice reinvestment is based on the logic that, at very high levels of concentration, incarceration actually promotes crime and destabilizes entire communities; and that many of those being held in prison could have been given community based sanctions instead of confinement without sacrificing public safety.

Justice reinvestment involves multiple steps. Policy experts comprehensively analyze a states criminal justice system to determine the reason for high incarceration and where it is concentrated. They then employ these data to promote a plan for reducing prison admittance rates and recidivism. The state then implements such policies. The important innovation of the justice reinvestment concept is that the money saved by reducing imprisonment then goes directly to the communities contributing most to the prison population. Essentially, the plan calculates the budgetary savings to the state from reduced incarceration and reinvests the savings into efforts that will help revitalize the neighborhoods contributing to disorder and offending. Efforts such as community services, job training, and redevelopment of abandoned housing, business opportunities, micro-financing, and rehabilitating parks and playgrounds. By earmarking incarceration savings for investment in the very communities that have been impacted by the negative incarceration feedback loop, justice reinvestment not only has the potential to reduce imprisonment, but to directly counteract the conditions that lead to high incarceration in the first place.

A compelling plan for justice reinvestment comes from Rutgers University criminologist Todd Clear. His strategy emphasizes community-based action rather than focusing justice reinvestment initiatives on probation and parole. Clear proposes creating a voucher system, by which savings from early release or diversion from prison can be used by a community-based organization (CBO).   The CBO would construct a detailed framework for how the savings will be used in the community and provide a plan for how a person diverted from prison will succeed in the community. For example, if the average cost of incarcerating someone in Virginia is $27,462 per year, and if an offender is diverted from three years of incarceration into community supervision, this amounts to a voucher of $82,386. The CBO can use the voucher to provide job training, employment, housing, or substance abuse treatment for the offender. It could also be directed towards subsidizing CBO efforts such as rehabilitating vacant property into transitional housing. The CBO has an incentive to facilitate the offender’s successful employment, housing, and crime free life; if the diverted offender gets a new conviction within a designated period of time, the CBO is assessed a failure fee.

Clear envisions that this model of justice reinvestment will lead to the development of community justice organizations, and that communities will prosper as fewer of their member’s cycle back and forth between communities and prison. Moreover, the savings from diverted incarceration will be spent on the community itself, helping to further micro and macro economic development. Justice reinvestment therefore has the potential to create jobs, income, infrastructure and stability in communities that desperately need it, while simultaneously reducing the direct and indirect community- level harms that flow from higher rates of imprisonment.   

The Justice Reinvestment idea has begun to gain momentum. The Council of State Governments now runs a justice reinvestment project in fifteen states, and the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act was recently proposed to Congress, though it did not pass. Connecticut's Justice Reinvestment Project showed a steep decrease in the prison population, leading to 30 million dollars in savings, $13 million of which was reinvested in high criminal justice communities. (9)  In North Carolina, state legislators passed House Bill 642, the Justice Reinvestment Act. It is projected to save $290 million in six years, with $4 million annually to be used for expanding community treatment programs for people under correctional supervision. (10)  Texas, long regarded as one of the most punitive states in the country, has begun working toward reinvestment. According to The Justice Center, in May 2007 the Texas Legislature enacted a package of criminal justice legislation that many policymakers consider to be the most expansive redirection in state corrections policy since the early 1990s. The state reinvested $241 million, which would have otherwise been spent on prison construction and operation, to expand the capacity of in-prison and community-based treatment and diversion programs. (11)

In addition to other gains that might flow from justice reinvestment, this process is also a promising way to invest in the political capital of communities that have been damaged by incarceration.  One of the elements lacking in many justice reinvestment models is that they focus on handing out money to communities as a way to build infrastructure, which is then geared toward crime control and economic stability. Public Safety and expanding employment opportunities are very good things. However, offenders have also been depleted of political empowerment. Most are barred from voting, they have few community groups, and they are the last demographic many politicians and political leaders take into consideration. They are politically marginalized and civically deserted.

So, then it is envisioned that justice reinvestment can, and should enhance democracy. A core component of the reinvestment model – one that would help civically reintegrate offenders and build community strength – should be to invest in political and civic empowerment. Prisoners diverted from prison or given early release through justice reinvestment initiatives should not only receive drug treatment and job training, the CBO should assist them in applying for restoration of their voting rights. The CBO will then help them register to vote, provide them with information on the civic organizations and volunteer opportunities in their communities, and assist them in developing their political and civic skills. This may occur through models previously discussed like the New Orleans Cornerstone Builders or the Civic Engagement Project in New Jersey, or it might be pursued through other models. Without helping the communities ravaged by incarceration to build political power and civic capacity we may improve them economically, but we will have failed to directly address the high-level of political alienation and marginalization that keep them from advocating for themselves.

There has been some movement in the offender disenfranchisement arena. The Commonwealth of Virginia, one of only two states to have lifetime disenfranchisement, expanded the franchise to first – time, non-serious offenders. Additionally, in an effort begun by former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, current Governor Terry McAuliffe with the assistance of the Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney, have streamlined the process of restoring voting rights to formerly disenfranchised offenders. In fact, the McAuliffe Administration has, in its first 18 months in office, extended the franchise to, and politically empowered 8,170 ex-offenders, more than any prior administration did in the entirety of their term in office. (12)  This marks a positive step forward for the Commonwealth as well as the political viability of communities and the civic reintegration of returning citizens.   

The national government has begun a critical re-examination of the criminal justice system. In recent years, Congress passed landmark reforms like the Second Chance Act and the Fair Sentencing Act, with broad  bi-partisan support and with little political pushback about being soft on crime. Many credit this turn of events to serious pressures on state budgets amid a worsening fiscal climate, as well as the emergence of an energetic bi-partisan movement to get "smart on crime" instead of tough. Others point to the ongoing national conversation on law enforcement and criminal justice in the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Baltimore. Whatever the reason, it is clear the nation has begun to seriously explore an alternative to crime politics as usual.   

Virginia has, likewise begun to re-examine its approach to criminal justice, actively assessing the decades long "tough on crime" ethos that has dominated the Commonwealth's public safety policy agenda.  True to the belief that the only way to improve the situation is to get started, on June 24, 2015, Governor Terry McAuliffe issued Executive Order Number Forty-four, establishing the Commission on Parole Review. Chaired by former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, the Commission on Parole Review will revisit legislation enacted twenty years ago abolishing discretionary parole in Virginia.  With two decades of evidence and data available, the commission is to asses the public safety outcomes of abolition and determine if it has achieved its intended goals. However, instead of simply evaluating whether or not to double-down on existing policy strategy, Governor McAuliffe further instructed the commission to study evidence–based and data driven prevention and rehabilitation models that improve outcomes for victims, offenders, their families, and the community, as well as approaches that reduce costs and preserve and enhance public safety. This includes evaluating whether Virginia is properly rehabilitating offenders and preparing them to reintegrate into the community as empowered, civically engaged, and productive citizens.  


Also prevalent within Executive Order Number Forty-four (2015), but garnering much less media attention, are the Governor's mandates to asses the practices of other states that have proven successful and explore their potential application in Virginia. The Commission is to examine emerging approaches that achieve results in preventing new felony offenses, reducing crime and recidivism while improving outcomes for all stakeholders.

RJBehindtheWire believes the initiatives and program models outlined above are just a few of those that should be considered for inclusion in the Parole Review Commissions final report due to be submitted to Governor McAuliffe by  December 4, 2015. Effective offender civic reintegration efforts, meaningful justice reinvestment legislation, victim oriented offender rehabilitation via restorative justice programming are all innovative, evidence - based, and cost-saving mechanisms that offer a long overdue substantive compliment to national and state criminal justice policy reform efforts.