Mass Incarceration (Part II)

Richmond City Justice Center -- model for the post-mass incarceration era?
Richmond City Justice Center — model for the post-mass incarceration era?

by Sarah Scarbrough

My last blog post established that crime has gone down since mass incarceration began but that mass incarceration was not responsible for that decline. Studies have shown no significant correlation between the increase in the prison population and the decrease in crime. 

Attitudes toward mass incarceration are changing. In an initiative endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recently voted to retroactively extend lighter sentencing guidelines to almost 46,000 prisoners serving time for federal drug crimes. At the state level, budget shortfalls have forced governors and lawmakers to take a look at their own policies. Some states have eased drug laws, decreased mandatory minimum sentences, or developed alternatives to incarceration. Even in the world’s prison capital, Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal passed modest measures to develop early release programs for non-violent drug offenders. The effort will contribute to lowering the number of those involved with “mass incarceration sentencing.”

So, what about Virginia? Virginia has the 14th highest incarceration rate of the 50 states. As a conservative state, Virginia has always been “tough on crime”; judges are tough on non-violent and drug offenders. Virginia has seen no efforts to curb mass incarceration comparable to those in Louisiana. The state still follows the abolition-of-parole law, in which all offenders must serve 85% of their sentence. Efforts are underway to lower the recidivism rate, but nothing is being done about mass incarceration.

That said, the McDonnell administration and now the McAuliffe administration have put forth efforts for offender rehabilitation and re-entry programming at a state level to prepare offenders for release from incarceration in hopes they will not recidivate – or come back to jail time and time again. A holistic statewide effort for alternatives, however, has yet to been seen.

By contrast, the City of Richmond has embraced alternatives to incarceration. The Sheriff’s office, City Council, the Mayor’s office, the Department of Justice Services and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office have collaborated to advance the drug court, the day reporting center, and the mental health docket. The drug court has been around for some time but it gaining traction. Some alternatives require a combination of jail time and treatment in the community; others are community based.

However, none of these alternatives affect people who were harshly sentenced before and still languish behind bars. Typically, these alternatives are applied to younger and first-time offenders. Folks we would refer to as “career criminals” are not benefiting. While their current crime might make them candidates for an alternative, prosecutors use their criminal history to try to convince judges to impose long, harsh sentences.

Looking specifically at the Richmond Sheriff’s office, where I also work full time, Sheriff C.T. Woody has always said we are locking up the wrong people. Addicts are getting stiff sentences even though addiction is a disease and incarcerating them for long periods of time does not work.  Drugs are rampant in prison, so use and addiction continues during lock-up. Even if offenders don’t use drugs while incarcerated, they are very likely to start using again when they get out, especially if they aren’t involved in a treatment program in jail. Side note: Many addicts overdose when they get out of jail because they use the same amount of drugs they did before they got locked up without realizing that their tolerance is no longer as high as it had been.

Prison is a breeding ground to create better criminals – to discuss how to get away crimes next time, to meet more drug contacts and street criminals, to fight and join gangs, without learning how to properly function in society. A letter I recently received from an offender in prison said ISIS is recruiting in prison.

Incarceration is not a place for the mentally ill, but our jails and prisons are full of them. The Richmond City Justice Center is full of individuals who battle diagnosed mental health illnesses. The medical team provides them with top-notch care, but jail or prison is not the place to manage, treat, and address such mental health issues.

Think about this: Someone convicted of a non-violent drug crime is sentenced to 20 years. He goes to prison when he is 20 and gets out when he is 40. He gets locked up in 1990 and gets out in 2010. Today there are cell phones, public toilets flush automatically, and everyone has the Internet. Facebook, Google, and Instagram did not exist in 1990. Now all job applications are online. People are being released into a world that makes no sense.

So, the only question remaining is what should we do?

We should not put people behind bars and warehouse them. We should address their root problems.

We are blessed in Richmond to have the newly built Justice Center. The Justice Center was designed with programming in mind. Our Internal Program Department has created an evidence-based program that uses a holistic approach to address the behaviors associated with criminality. The focus on behavioral modification inspires program participants to face their problems and overcome their addictive lifestyles, whether it is to drugs, alcohol, dealing drugs, women, cars, etc. – namely, whatever placed them in their current situation, and so often kept them incarcerated time and time again. While this approach doesn’t un-do mass incarceration, it does help reduce recidivism and crime.

I would encourage other sheriffs to embrace programming, so they too can contribute to changing lives and breaking the cycle of drugs, criminality, and incarceration. I encourage legislators to examine state policies that contribute to mass incarceration, much like Louisiana did.

Sarah Scarbrough is internal program director for the Richmond City Justice Center. This essay was originally published on her blog.

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  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think fixing this on the back end – is … I want to use the word futile – but I’d like to sound more hopeful than that.

    I think we have to ask ourselves why we have mass incarceration to begin with – both in terms of purpose and intent.

    I thought we were getting there in the dialogue when we said getting to the root causes…

    I say that you can predict these incarcerations reliably.

    Just go to any K-12 school system and look at the kids who do not pass the SOLs and who are also economically disadvantaged.

    what will be their future after school?

    Some folks have good educations and good jobs and still do wrong… but most kids who fail the SOLs – what happens to them?

    We have “big” data out the wazoo these days… everything from highway congestion to immigrant assimilation but I’d bet that if you took the data from first time non-violent offenders in Va – there would be a very high correlation with failure in K-12.

    They’re not going to get a job after high school – and you can guarantee after they get “justice” they’re not going to get a job – ever.

    Some of us will look at this and say – it’s not “our” fault. That between folks who should not have had kids and schools that cannot educate those kids – it’s just the way things are.

    I’d go back to big data to prove that this costs us all… much more than we can afford.

    The biggest agency in Va is the Department of Corrections.

    My bet is that if you looked at how many families that are receiving entitlements, TANF, SNAP, MedicAid, free and reduced lunches, etc are families that have one or more members who has been in prison.

    We, more than likely, have way too many police working on “drugs” whose primary performance metric is how many folks got taken off the streets – without any concern about all the other issues that flow from those arrests and the ensuing criminal “justice” process.

    I’m not so convinced that working to help the ones already drawn into the criminal justice system is where we should be concentrating the efforts because all we’re doing is expending resources to try to fix a never ending conveyor belt of new “recruits” who will not only need/receive entitlements but repeat the cycle… with their kids.

    surely, as a society – we are smarter than this.

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Sarah, again, thanks for posting a thoughtful piece.

    Have you examined the research of Fordham University law professor John Pfaff? His studies of prison growth and related issues revealed that more than half of the “extra prisoners” from the 80s through the 00s, were imprisoned for violent crimes and 2/3 were incarcerated for violent or property crimes. He found that about 1/5 were in prison for drug related offenses and many of those had prior convictions for violent crimes. Here is a link to his webpage, which contains further links to his papers.

    This is not to argue we should not reexamine who is in prison and for how long. All public policies should be reexamined from time to time. But if most of our prison population is there because of violent and property crimes, shouldn’t we acknowledge that and then focus on the seemingly smaller population of drug offenders, most especially those who don’t already have an extensive criminal record and were not engaged in the smuggling or sale of drugs?

    For those who do not present a real threat to person or property, I think we should look at corrections that can allow prisoners more contact with families and work opportunities, perhaps, after some shorter stay in prison.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think the stats that TMT provided are a bit misleading:

    ” In 2002 about a quarter of convicted property and drug offenders in local jails had committed their crimes to get money for drugs, compared to 5% of violent and public order offenders. Among state prisoners in 2004 the pattern was similar, with property (30%) and drug offenders (26%) more likely to commit their crimes for drug money than violent (10%) and public-order offenders (7%). In federal prisons property offenders (11%) were less than half as likely as drug offenders (25%) to report drug money as a motive in their offenses.”

    we have to separate our moral opinions about people who use drugs and sell drugs and what we think they deserve – and the fiscal and societal impacts to all of us.

    Donj’t get me wrong – I think many of the people who steal and do drugs are the scum of the earth… I cannot imagine why in this land of opportunity – people do such irresponsible and ignorant things…

    But we have a problem – and we’re in denial about it.

    We have 5% of the worlds population and we have 25% of the imprisoned people in the world – and that counts despotic regimes.

    when we put an 18yr old in prison – we’re setting into motion – a lifetime of costs to the rest of us.

    that’s money we can’t spend on highways or education or child care or tax cuts.

    I’m not advocating that we turn lose criminals on the streets… either…

    the ones already in prison … as bad as this sounds – probably are not going to escape the cycle – some will make good on a second chance – others won’t escape… that’s just the sad reality.

    but we know when a kid is in the 8th grade and fails SOLs – what’s going to happen to him… we know this… and yet we stand aside and watch him get drawn into the criminal justice system that we’re all going to pay for…

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry, so where did Professor Pfaff make his mistake? As you are so fond of saying in climate change discussions, pointing to one source that says something different doesn’t disprove the original study. 🙂

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I think the source data speaks for itself. It comes from BJS and clearly is authoritative.

        I notice that Pfaff does footnote but on the chart on page 10 , he shows this:

        19 Federal data from
        State data from Pfaff, War on Drugs,

        this appears to be data that has been manipulated from the original data…

        when you follow the link to – it’s a composite chart of references cited without links… and actually says
        Table constructed by SOURCEBOOK staff.

        at this point – I’m wondering why not provide the source data links to start with?

        Anytime I see someone provide data that they say is “based on” … I get suspicious and want to see the original source data.

        Not sure what Pfaff is doing.. but it clearly is contradicted by the source data.

  4. There’s around 20,000 people that live back in my old stomping grounds. 25 percent of them are old geezers, 20 percent are under 18, and 80 percent of all of them have graduated high school. Every week the county paper reports that between 5 and 10 are going to the pen for forging oxy prescriptions, running meth labs or playing with minors. That’s 260 to 520 every year. You would think they would run out of people eventually. The amazing part is that most of the newly minted convicts look like they are 60+, but are only in their 20’s and 30’s. Even more amazing is that these don’t include the ones the judge sent to rehab or home detention.

    Military isn’t an option, so they have to do something to get these people out of the community when the more lenient rehab doesn’t work.

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