Poll: Most Virginians think prisons cost too much

Most Virginians agree that the prison population costs too much money, according to a recent poll by the Charles Koch Institute, an educational public-policy organization, and Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

On Wednesday, the two groups hosted a panel of experts to discuss the poll results and fiscally responsible ways to both reform the prison system and make communities safer.

“In Virginia, there are actions that can be taken in the short run to dramatically improve our current justice system,” said Vikrant Reddy, senior research fellow at the Koch Institute. “We can improve public safety, reduce costs and respect each individual’s dignity.”

According to the poll:

  • 36 percent of Virginians rate criminal justice reform among the top five issues most important to them.
  • 75 percent agree or strongly agree that the prison population is costing too much money.
  • 80 percent believe people with felony records should have the right to get work certification licenses after their release.
  • 80 percent agree that the theft of $200 of goods from a retail store should be a misdemeanor offense (not a felony, as under current law).
  • By a 3-to-1 margin (64 percent to 21 percent), Virginians support reinstating a parole system.
  • Self-described conservative or very conservative Virginians support reinstating parole by a 2-to-1 margin.

Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton and Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran were among the attendees at Wednesday’s panel.

“We’ve been working on these issues since we took office with Gov. (Terry) McAuliffe,” Moran said. “We’ve had a number of legislation before the General Assembly, and the governor appointed a parole review commission.”

The discussion was moderated by Christian Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a former member of the Fairfax School Board and a past president of the Virginia Board of Education.

“For a long time, criminal justice reform was considered something center-left, but recently there’s been some morphing on this issue,” Braunlich said as he opened the panel discussion. “Why are conservatives shifting, and how did Ken Cuccinelli and the ACLU end up in bed together?”

Braunlich’s question garnered laughs around the room, but Joe Luppino-Esposito had a straightforward answer.

“A lot of these ideas are based on civil liberties and public safety, which are issues I don’t think anyone’s going to oppose,” said Luppino-Esposito, a policy analyst for the conservative criminal justice initiative Right on Crime.

Infographic by Miranda Leung
Infographic by Miranda Leung

Luppino-Esposito pointed at the 75 percent recidivism rate among juvenile offenders at the cost of $150,000 per juvenile.

“The ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric doesn’t work anymore,” Luppino-Esposito said.

Eric Alston, the senior policy and research analyst for the Charles Koch Institute, agreed. He cited the added difficulties of re-entry into society when job opportunities are scarce following a conviction.

“There’s a startling consensus for the need for reform on this issue,” Alston said. “There are 854 collateral consequences for a conviction in Virginia,” Alston said. “For felons alone, there are 404 collateral consequences – 404 routes of opportunity that are now closed.”

Alston said that he’s not suggesting the elimination of all collateral consequences but that the number of them severely limits an individual’s ability to secure gainful employment.

“I’m not going to want to invest with someone convicted of a ponzi scheme, but 404 things you generally can’t do? That’s a driving force behind recidivism,” Alston said.

Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, referred to the 75 percent recidivism rate among juveniles as a “failure rate” and stressed the importance of smaller, more accountable facilities to rehabilitate offenders.

“This is a values discussion,” DeRoche said. “Money is a value, but more importantly is the value of human life. These polling results tell us that the commonwealth has an appetite for a system of criminal justice that truly restores.”

Martin Brown, former commissioner for the Virginia Department of Social Services and special advisor to the governor, said services must be more family-oriented and help offenders transition back into living their best lives.

“Fathers, in particular,” Brown said. “There are things I would do for my daughters I would never do for myself. And incarcerated individuals are no different.”

Brown said it is important to reform the corrections system so it respects both the perpetrators and victims of crime.

“The state gets everything they can out of the offender,” Brown said. “Often, the victim is looking for a restorative process while the state plays this kabuki dance.”

The Koch Institute and Prison Fellowship poll was conducted by Survey Sampling International in December. All participants were Virginia residents and were surveyed by use of an opt-in Web-based panel. The survey had 1,000 total respondents with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Executive Editor, Sarah King

Sarah King, photo by Brooke MarshSarah is a junior in the honors college studying political science and philosophy of law. She is a copyeditor for INK Magazine and reporter for the Capital News Service wire. Last spring, Sarah worked as an editorial intern for Congressional Quarterly Researcher and SAGE Business Researcher in Washington, D.C. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn

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  1. Virginians think prisons cost too much. Compared to what? The Virginia budget indicates that less than $6 billion goes to prisons (that $6 billion is lumped together with other spending labeled “protection”). Other line items include Education (about $28 billion) and Healthcare (about $17 billion).

    Our criminal justice system must be improved. The problem however is that all efforts are directed at one small component within that system–prisons. The reform debate is focused on whether to reduce or increase our levels of incarceration. That’s like saying we need healthcare reform because we have too many or too few people in hospitals. The issues are broader than that.

    We as a nation spend about 10 times more on education than on prisons. Yet no one suggests, nor should they, that we need to curtail spending on education or reduce school enrollment because we spend too much on schools.

    We must focus on the real issues and come up with effective solutions. The criminal justice system must strive for safer communities and not merely be a gatekeeper for prisons. It must focus on reducing crime rather than reducing incarceration. Success with the former leads to success with the latter. Many people however seem to put the cart before the horse.

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