by Lord Serious
On September 26, 2022 Senator Jennifer Boysko and Delegate Irene Shin paid a visit to a group of prisoners at Lawrenceville Correctional Center. After introducing myself and thanking the distinguished guest for visiting us at the prison, I asked them what were their visions for prison reform and criminal justice reform. They each spoke of their record and the various bills they have sponsored and fought to get passed. I’d like to thank Q. Patterson and Sistas In Prison Reform (S.I.P) for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the group who were chosen to attend this meeting. Below is a draft of some of the speaking points I wrote to prepare for the meeting:
First, we offenders request that you amend Code 15.2-1636.7 to prohibit the Compensation Board from continuing to use the formula suggested by Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. This prosecutorial interest group has suggested a formula that incentives Commonwealths Attorneys offices to seek felony convictions for funding, and it deters prosecutors from using alternative methods to secure just and fair results.
This formula contributes to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people. It encourages prosecutors to seek felony charges over misdemeanors, and it deters them from recommending diversion programs, even in cases where a misdemeanor or diversion program will result in a more just result without jeopardizing public safety. Furthermore, the formula fails to factor in the socioeconomic factors that also influence crime. All of this results in a biased criminal justice system that encourages its prosecutors to over charge and excessively sentence minorities so that their office will receive more funding.
Once this formula has been replaced with a method that will eradicate the bias and exploitative nature of the Criminal justice system. Many of your funding issues will be solved when it comes to the Department of Corrections, because prosecutors will be less inclined to charge every criminal defendant they possibly can with a felony and sentence them to prison. Those who can remain in the community without jeopardizing public safety will receive an adequate punishment without ever having to step foot in a prison, thus they will be less of a burden on the Virginia tax payer.
Next, we request that you amend Code 9.1-601 Citizen Review Panels. We ask that you expand their oversight abilities beyond the police department. We request that their oversight authority be amended to include the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Offices and the Probation and Parole Office.
It is our position that a lot of the socioeconomic bias that infects the criminal justice system goes beyond just police brutality. The entire system neither values nor does it respect the Black and Brown life, especially when they are from impoverished communities. Therefore, we ask that municipalities be given the authority to establish Community Review Panels that will maintain the checks and balances and make these two critical departments accountable to the communities they serve.
The Community Review Panel should be allowed to play a role in determining whether Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Offices are dealing too harshly with the citizens in their community. It’s easy for an office of predominantly White people to send young Black and Brown men to prison for multiple decades for their first felony offense. But the very communities that we’re committing our crimes in do not always agree that a lengthy prison sentence is an appropriate punishment, and the voice of the community should have some influence in these matters before trial. Community Review Panels should be granted the authority to recommend eligible cases for diversion programs when appropriate.
The Community Review Panel should also be granted authority to review the practices of the probation and parole offices for biases and abuses of power. Ex-offenders on probation and parole have no right to an attorney for a revocation hearing and neither can they appeal the decision if their parole has been revoked. This leaves ex-offenders at the mercy of the probation and parole office and they are powerless to prevent abuses of power. Therefore, Community Review Panels should also be granted oversight authority to protect returning citizens from bias probation or parole officers.
And lastly, we would like you to pass a law to make financial literacy a requirement for our rehabilitation. The Uniform Crime Report data shows that poverty is a major contributor to crime. In fact, that report list economic conditions and employment availability as the #3 influencer to crime in the Commonwealth, eclipsed only by population density and population stability which were #1 and #2 respectively.
Legislators in Virginia recognize that having access to more financial resources can help prevent recidivism. This is why the law was passed that now requires us to save $1,000 in our hold account. Obviously, legislators realized that Virginia offenders were not doing a good enough job with saving their money and many were being released with only the $25 they gave you for the bus ticket and the lack of financial stability is what was leading many to re-offend. Unfortunately, with inflation steadily increasing that $1,000 will have less impact by the time many of us are released.
So that $1,000 is not enough. If you distinguished guest are serious about prison reform and preventing recidivism then the nature of the Department of Corrections will have to change course, it must turn away from it’s past when it was a system that used mass incarceration as a profitable economic model. This economic model has failed and your budget issues and the statistics all show that mass incarceration is an unnecessary burden on the tax payer and it has never increased public safety.
-Lord Serious, September 2022