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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Guestpost: Tight Fists And Bleeding Hearts

Virginia reformer Mark Earley to speak here October 20
This op ed piece by local writer Reta Finger was published in the Daily News-Record October. I post it here with her permission:

On Sept. 4, when I gave blood, the nurse asked if I had read the booklet on the sign-up table. I had not. “If you don’t read this booklet and sign your name to show that you did, I could get five years in prison.” 

I read and signed!
Afterward, I thought, “Five years in prison? I know they don’t want contaminated blood, but does the punishment fit the crime?” Beyond scarring one nurse’s life, it would cost taxpayers like us $25,498 per year, totaling over $127,000!   
The next day I attended a “Summit on Reducing Recidivism,” organized by Kai Degner, a City Council member. Statistics for one day last summer, he said, showed that 88 percent of the 422 prisoners in our jail, plus those sent to Middle River Regional Jail in Staunton, had been jailed before. That’s 371 repeat offenders for whom we are paying the bill.
Various summit attendees suggested sentencing alternatives for nonviolent offenders, such as day reporting or attending substance-abuse services. Reporting in every day allows offenders to keep their jobs and families instead of disrupting so many lives. Conservatives might call such ideas “soft on crime” promoted by bleeding-heart liberals.
But conservative Republicans are taking the lead on criminal justice reform — here in Virginia and across the nation. They realize that past efforts for getting “tough on crime” were short-term fixes for a shocking long-term result: the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners!
Are Americans more crime-prone than people in other countries? More likely it’s those mandatory sentences for drug abuses and “three strikes, you’re out” for repeat offenders. Degner noted that a very large percentage of inmates in our jails are there for drug and alcohol offenses. And 40 percent are jailed before their trial and sentencing — while still presumed innocent.
Law-and-order conservatives realize that past policies work against their creed of limited government. What can limited government mean when one out of every 100 Americans is under total control by the state?
Furthermore, fiscal conservatives notice that taxes spent on prisons don’t correct or rehabilitate the vast majority of inmates. Recently, 70 of the most influential figures in the conservative movement drew up a statement called “Right on Crime” that said “corrections spending has expanded to become the second fastest growing area of state budgets —trailing only Medicaid.” Signers included former Govs. Rick Perry and Jeb Bush. Wrote
 Ken Cuccinelli, a signer and a former Republican attorney general of Virginia: “For far too long, the only answer to decreasing crime was to put more people in prison. We built prisons at rates we didn’t need and couldn’t afford, especially for nonviolent offenders. Now, we know there are alternatives that cost less and work better.”
“Right on Crime” includes seven principles of criminal justice policy that are “vital to achieving a cost-effective system that protects citizens, restores victims, and reforms wrongdoers.”
Taxpayers should encourage our Community Criminals Justice Board to implement these alternatives.
To learn more, attend former Attorney General Mark Earley’s speech on Oct. 20, 7 p.m., at Eastern Mennonite University’s Martin Chapel. Early is an evangelical Christian who led Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship, and who co-chairs Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s commission reviewing parole. His topic is “Why America Is Incarcerating So Many People, And What We Can Do About It.”
We can join together in a common concern to learn of alternatives that will save money, prevent wasteful incarceration of nonviolent offenders, and provide re-entry services for those leaving prison.

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The following groups or agencies have signed on so far as co-sponsors of the event:

Center for Justice and Peacebuilding
Harrisonburg/Rockingham/Page Reentry Council
Harrisonburg/Rockingham Building A Better Community Working Group 
The Fairfield Center
Harrisonburg/Rockingham Interfaith Association
Community Mennonite Church
The JMU Ghandi Center
The Harriet Tubman Cultural Center
JMU Department of Justice Studies
Gemeinschaft Home
Virginia Organizing
The Martin Luther King Way Coalition
Harrisonburg Democratic Committee
NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center
Northeast Neighborhood Association
Immanuel Mennonite Church
On The Road Collaborative
Harrisonburg Police Department

Valley Family Forum
Harrisonburg City School Board

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