Progressive Legislators Declare “Profound Solidarity” with Criminals

from the Liberty Unyielding blog

Killings and violence have risen in the U.S. over the last decade, as some government officials have come to sympathize more with criminals than their victims. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus recently said it is “in profound solidarity” with Virginia’s prison population, and that its members “work to dismantle the unjust criminal system.” They said the criminal-justice system has the “role of dehumanizing, abusing and punishing Black America.”

Thirty-two of Virginia’s 140 state legislators belong to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, including the speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates, Don Scott; the president pro tempore of the state Senate, Louise Lucas; the head of the House Appropriations Committee; and the head of the Senate Rules Committee.

On February 14, the VLBC issued a statement that began:

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) remains in profound solidarity with the 122,500 Virginians who are actively trapped in our state’s criminal justice system, nearly half of whom are Black. When slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, it was qualified with “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” With that, mass incarceration was born and the criminal justice system absorbed the role of dehumanizing, abusing and punishing Black America.

The Black Caucus includes only Democratic legislators. In 2022, it excluded a black Republican legislator who attempted to join.

Although the Black Caucus complains that “nearly half” of Virginia’s prisoners are black, it ignores that their victims are disproportionately black, too. Most crimes against black people are black-on-black, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. “In Virginia, Black people are eight times more likely than white people to die of gun homicide,” noted the mayor of Richmond. According to FBI data, 89 percent of blacks who were murdered in 2018 were killed by black offenders. Seventy percent of gun homicide victims in Virginia are black, according to PolitiFact. Nearly half of U.S. homicide victims in 2019 were black. Incarceration is aimed mostly at violent offenders. Most state prison inmates are there for “violent offenses,” according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

There are fewer than 24,000 people in Virginia’s state prisons, so it is not clear what the VLBC was referring to when it claimed “122,500 Virginians” are “trapped in our state’s criminal justice system.” Virginia’s prison population has fallen a lot since 2019, and Virginia recently announced plans to close four state prisons in 2024.

The VLBC’s claims of “mass incarceration” ignore the fact that — as criminology professor Justin Nix notes — “Given its level of serious crime, America has ordinary levels of incarceration.” As criminology professor Peter Moskos points out, “If America arrested only murderers — nobody else in jail or prison — if we caught them all and each served 20 years, we’d have ~400,000 criminals in prison. Our incarceration rate of 120 (per 100k) would still be higher than the EU average (and twice as high as the Netherlands).”

Crime has risen somewhat in Virginia since Democrats took over Virginia’s legislature in 2019, which might reflect the softer-on-crime policies they enacted. After they took control of the legislature, the Democrats abolished the death penalty, and passed laws allowing some inmates to get released earlier from prison. They have also picked judges who have softer approaches to criminal justice, such as “restorative justice.” The legislature picks judges in Virginia.

Democrats also passed legislation that had the effect of making prosecutions of criminals more costly. They passed a law that eliminated the requirement that juries sentence the offenders they convict. Virginia law had previously required that juries sentence offenders convicted by a jury. Because juries were more likely to impose harsh sentences than a judge, defendants tried to avoid jury trials as a result. Instead, defendants tended to choose bench trials, which are cheaper, quicker, and easier to conduct. But now, defendants can request a jury trial, yet be sentenced by a judge. After Democrats changed the law to curb jury sentencing, many more offenders chose jury trials, perhaps because juries are more likely to find a defendant not guilty.

The increased number of jury trials created big problems for some prosecutors and courthouses, making it harder to prosecute criminals. As a crime victim advocate in eastern Virginia explained in February 2022:

Our dockets are over-run with jury trials now thanks to the GA allowing the offenders to request a jury trial and then be sentenced by the Judge. I’m in a rural area and we have a jury trial set every other week for the foreseeable future. These are multiday jury trials. [Her] jurisdiction is having to stack 2 jury trials just in case one resolves itself. This means all must prepare for two trials, prep witnesses and victims. Then must tell one of those that are prepped, sorry your case is in 2nd on the docket and will not be heard for months. This is traumatizing all over again [for crime victims]….

The early-release legislation enacted by Democrats in November 2020 may have increased the crime rate somewhat, by shortening criminals’ sentences. In 1998, the National Bureau of Economic Research said longer sentences “reduce crime” through deterrence, citing research in the Journal of Law & Economics. A 2014 study in the American Economic Journal found that early releases of prison inmates increased Italy’s crime rate.

The Democrats’ changes to Virginia’s criminal laws in 2020 were not that radical, because progressive legislation often had to be substantially amended to pass a closely-divided legislature. For example, an early-release bill had to be amended to exclude most violent offenders to get the few remaining moderate Democrats to vote for it.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus would have liked much more radical changes that would have released far more inmates, but it could not pass them back in 2020, because Democrats back then only had narrow control of the legislature, and moderate Democrats like Lynwood Lewis sometimes voted against progressive proposals to release inmates early. Those moderate Democrats are no longer in the legislature, so they will not be a check on radical de-carceration legislation the next time the Democrats control both the legislature and the executive branch. Right now, Virginia has a Republican governor who is generally opposed to releasing inmates early, but that could easily change after the 2025 election.

Virginia had one of America’s lower homicide rates a decade ago, but now, it has a middling homicide rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control — lower than the rate in neighboring Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but slightly higher than in West Virginia, which had a higher homicide rate than Virginia back in 2014. Virginia still has a relatively low rate of robbery, property crimes, and violent crimes in general.

Republished with permission from Liberty Unyielding.