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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Local Candidates' Responses To Some Criminal Justice Questions

How can we improve our criminal justice system?
“Love compels us to respectfully and humbly show all high officials what the Word of God commands them... to punish the transgressors and protect the good; to judge rightly between a man and his fellows; to do justice to the widows and orphans and to the poor, to rule cities and countries justly by a good policy and administration... to the benefit of the common people.”
- Menno Simons

I submitted the following questions to our three local candidates running for state offices in early September:

1. Do you support a more active oversight role by the local Community Criminal Justice Board as recommended by the Moseley Architect's Community Corrections Plan in its December, 2014 report? 

2. Are you in favor of the CCJB carefully considering the recommendations made for reducing incarceration that are in the above Community Corrections Plan as adopted by City Council, the Board of Supervisors and the CCJB in December, 2014?

3. Do you support ongoing funding for re-entry and rehabilitation programs like the Harrisonburg Diversion Center, and Gemeinschaft Home (Rockingham County)?

4. Do you support automatic bail bond for offenders who are gainfully employed (and/or a full time student) except in extreme cases of their being an immediate threat to community safety?

5. Would you support legislation banning the use of the restraint chair and the isolated padded cell for mentally ill and suicidally depressed inmates in our jails?

6. Do you support recent proposals to restore voting rights to rehabilitated offenders?

7. Do you support greater utilization of Virginia’s Geriatric Parole Statute (Code § 53.1-40.01) as a way of reducing the growing cost of health care for aging inmates who no longer pose any danger to society?

8. Do you favor reinstating some form of parole in Virginia and offering reduced time for inmates who utilize every opportunity to rehabilitate themselves in prison and prepare for effective reentry?

Here are their responses, in the order received:
April Moore, 26th District Senate candidate

Ms. Moore responded right away but asked for time to prepare a position statement, which she later provided, as follows:

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM IS ESSENTIAL
by April Moore

Much has been written about American Exceptionalism---beginning with the Founding Fathers’ belief that our new nation would serve as a “Shining City on the Hill” for other peoples to admire and emulate.  There are many ways in which we have, indeed, been a role model for the world.  Sadly, there is an area where we should offer a positive example, but, instead, we are “exceptional” in a way we should not want to be----our criminal justice system. 
The United States imprisons a larger percentage of our population than any country in the world. While we have only 4.4% of the world’s population, we incarcerate nearly 25% of all the world’s prisoners. “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today.”  (Adam Gopnik). 
Everywhere along the path from arrest to imprisonment to release, we have broken our promise as a just and equitable society with disastrous consequences for the lives of millions of people. 
          We have promised that all people will be treated equally, but racial and economic discrimination in our criminal justice system is well documented.
          We have promised a “jury of our peers,” however, very few of those arrested ever see a jury, especially if they have no money.
         We have promised a lawyer for everyone charged with a crime.  Those with little or no money are promised a public defender. But these attorneys are often inexperienced and overworked.  They frequently do not see the defendant prior to appearing in court and even less often have time to do the research the case requires or even give serious thought to the charges being filed against their client.
         Confident in our promise, we believe that only guilty and violent people are behind bars.  According to the Justice Policy Institute, of those in jail, 62% are there awaiting resolution of charges against them and most would be released if they could afford bail.  Half of all people in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses and 20% for drug offenses.
        Regarding those in prison, there is no way of knowing how many are actually innocent of the crimes for which they are charged.  This is true because our notorious plea bargaining system typically coerces the accused into pleading guilty to whatever crime the prosecuting attorney and public defender decide is appropriate.   In federal courts, as high as 97% of cases are resolved through plea bargaining. The judge typically does little more than rubber stamp the agreement.
        We have promised that, while in prison, everyone will be treated humanely.  However, conditions in our prisons, particularly the frequent and long-term use of solitary confinement, have been labeled by Human Rights Watch as constituting a violation of human rights.

        As a just society, we have promised that, after release from prison, ex-offenders are free to become productive members of society.  After release from prison, however, many factors, including employment obstacles, debt incurred while in prison with unpaid child support, and driver’s license prohibitions contribute to a recidivism rate of nearly 70%.  
A strong movement has begun nationwide, and here in District 26, to begin the essential work of criminal justice reform---to keep our promises.


Legislators can play an important role in supporting this movement statewide.  If I am elected State Senator, I will establish an advisory committee to work with me in crafting legislation that will support the critical criminal justice reform work that has begun here in District 26 and encourage a similar statewide effort.  In particular, I will work with local and state groups in addressing the need to reinstate parole as an important opportunity for those in prison to gain early release for good behavior, reduce the costs of their continued incarceration and make a positive contribution to society. 
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Delegate Wilt responded as follows: 

Thank you for your interest in my positions on issues related to the criminal justice system and incarceration.
As I have indicated to other groups that have solicited my positions on various subjects via surveys and questionnaires, I generally reserve final judgement on specific legislative proposals until I have a chance to review the actual language of a bill.
Many of the questions you pose are not black and white issues with only two definitive options, but rather could have various policy outcomes, some of which I may or may not support depending on the specific content of a bill. For example, on the question concerning the need to ban the use of the padded cell or restraining chair for mentally ill and suicidal depressed inmates, I'm not sure if I would be comfortable "banning" their use, but I would certainly be willing to consider proposals that make an effort to limit their use.
I believe there are some policy areas that the General Assembly can and will review this upcoming session to improve our criminal justice system while still protecting the public and the rights of victims of crime. I look forward to considering these issues.
As always, I welcome continued dialogue and learning more about these matters.

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Mark Obenshain, 26th District State Senate incumbant

Mr. Obenshain did not respond to my questions or to a follow-up email.

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