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Saturday, August 15, 2015

How About Some Real "Truth In Sentencing"?

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Background: The state of Virginia, under Governor George Allen, enacted truth-in-sentencing laws in 1995 that abolished parole for future offenders and required them to serve at least 85% of their time. This change was accompanied by longer sentences and mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, all of which in turn have resulted in prison crowding and lower inmate morale--in that there are fewer incentives for good behaviors that might result in an earlier release.

Today's question:  What might real "truth in sentencing" actually look like?

Let's take an actual random case that made the front page of yesterday's Daily News-Record. It involves a 41-year-old female found guilty of embezzling $13,000 and obtaining some $7,000 through other illegal means.

I have no particular opinion regarding the fairness of the sentence (though it would have been interesting to see the outcome of a restorative justice process), but in the interest of truth, there are at least three different parties sentenced here, not just one:

The offender's sentence, according to the DNR article, is fifteen years in prison--with thirteen of them suspended--plus restitution of $36,620 to be paid after her two years are served. Period. But in the interests of "truth in sentencing" the following could also be added:

She will suffer the humiliation of having to wear prison garb and make any public appearances in court or for an outside medical appointment in shackles and handcuffs. While at the local jail for six months or more (before being moved to a state prison), she will be handcuffed whenever she is moved to the visitor area, to a class or for a session with the nurse, or even with her minister or an attorney (where she is separated by a wall of concrete and glass). She will also be charged "rent" of $1 a day, or if (at the sheriff's discretion) she spends part of her time at the Middle River Jail that "rent" will be $3 per day, or over $1000 a year. She will also be charged extra for things like coffee, snacks, and for any medical costs. Phone calls from Middle River, for example, are $10 per 15-minute conversation. She will likewise give up her right to any privacy 24/7 unless she is confined to a segregation cell for an infraction, which can be even more stressful than being in a crowded cell.

It could be argued that she deserves all of this or more, but I'm simply noting that none of the above are never named as a part of the sentence.

The family is also "sentenced" to having to foot the bill for most of the above, even though they have not been convicted of any crime. Exorbitant phone costs, high-priced commissary items and the $1 or $3 daily jail "rent" may significantly add to her family's financial burden, in addition to her no longer being able to earn an income to help with her family's finances. Time and travel costs involved in making visits can also be substantial, depending on where she will serve her time.

Of course, this person's family is not legally obligated to pay any of the above, but strong family support and frequent visits and phone calls have been shown to be a major factor in an inmate's rehabilitation and later re-entry into society.

Law-abiding citizens are also "sentenced" to support her incarceration, to the tune of the $26,000 or more per year that it costs to house and feed people in steel cages. In addition, we are being deprived of the benefit of the inmate being a productive, tax-paying fellow-citizen for the duration. In some cases, we could also be footing the bill for additional social services and other benefits should her family experience special hardships due to her absence.

Conclusion: While we may have honest disagreements over the merits of this or any other case, or about the fairness of her sentence, we need to face "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" when it comes to all parties who are being affected, and everyone who is actually punished.
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