Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fairfax County Crime Collapses: Richmond Keeps Pushing

U.S. Senator Jim Webb always likes to point out that in the United States 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prison population.  As Jim likes to say, either our sentencing policy is out of proportion with the rest of the world, or Americans are incredibly evil people. 

The costs of this are staggering.  Virginia abolished parole in 1995.  Since then our prison budget has skyrocketed - consuming more and more money that could otherwise go to education, healthcare or our safety net.  Depending on how you count, Virginia spends between $25,000 and $35,000 per year per inmate to house them in prison.  For a point of reference, Virginia also spends around $5,000 per student to educate them. 

Virginia even has one brand new $105 million prison in Southwest Virginia that is currently empty and costs taxpayers $700,000 per year to keep available.  In the article, leaders in that part of the state lamented the fact that the jail was empty.  From my point of view, it is actually a good sign. 

Today, Tom Jackman reported that Fairfax County announced that in 2011 crime hit an all-time low in Fairfax County - even with a new reporting system that should have caused the stats to increase.  Fairfax County has always had a relatively low level of crime compared to the rest of the state - largely because crime is often driven by economics, mental illness, or other dysfunction.  Affluent households tend to have access to health care and treatment which helps to prevent crime.

Notwithstanding this, we have continued to see efforts in the General Assembly to increase sentences, remove discretion in sentencing from juries and judges, and cut programs to prevent crime.  In general, I have been leery of those policies for a variety of reasons. 

In general, I believe that our sentencing policies are strict enough.  Juries and judges have the discretion necessary to fashion a punishment that fits the circumstances of each crime, the effects on victims, and the culpability of the offender.  I have also received very few complaints from constituents about bad outcomes in our criminal justice system.  The costs of locking people up for relatively minor crimes are killing our budget.

If anyone in our community has a different point of view and thinks that Virginia's sentencing remedies or juries are too leniente, I'd love to hear it.


  1. What was the reason behind abolishing parole? From my limited research online it looks like, prior to the abolition of parole, the convincted rarely served their full sentence, but if that is the case, then why not just modify the criteria for parole. Why abolish parole completely?

  2. There were several reasons. Part of it was being "tough on crime" and "truth in sentencing."

    I wasn't around for that debate. Clearly, modifying the criteria could have resulted similar outcomes.