The United States is the global leader in incarceration. Today, more than 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons, a figure that has quintupled since 1980. Including jails, 2.2 million Americans remains behind bars. One in three U.S. adults are arrested by 23. Communities of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and people with histories of abuse or mental illness are disproportionately affected. As a result, between 70 million and 100 million—or as many as one in three Americans—have some type of criminal record. Having a minor criminal record, even a misdemeanor or even an arrest without conviction, can create an array of lifelong barriers that stand in the way of successful re-entry. This has broad implications for the economic security of families, individuals, and the national economy. Mass incarceration and hyper-criminalization are major drivers of poverty; having a criminal record can present obstacles to employment, housing, public assistance, education, family reunification, building good credit, and more.
The 1902 Constitution Convention of Virginia adopted Jim Crow Legislation of disenfranchising convicted felons is still affecting over 400,000 in the Commonwealth of Virginia and more than 50,000 individuals in the Richmond region. This current legislation has relegated them to a life of poverty, marginalization, mental health issues, substance abuse, and perpetual crime. The tens of thousands that have some type of criminal record face obstacles for employment, housing, public assistance, education, industry-recognized employment skills training, and family reunification. Moreover, poverty and homelessness are being increasingly criminalized. The following data impacting the City of Richmond shows the exorbitant examples of the collateral effects of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s disenfranchisement laws:
- Housing: There are over 10,000 individuals residing in public housing, unable to move toward a better quality of living. There are an additional 3,000 receiving some form of housing subsidies in the Richmond area.
- Mental Health: RBHA (CSB) services over 11,000 individuals with some form of mental health disability. In addition, there are countless agencies that also provide services to this population. The main cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. About 13 percent of Virginians spend half their income on housing. Richmond is hovering around 25, below the poverty level minimum of 30.The average minimum wage is 7.25 which relegates most to public housing and rent subsidies. 73% have served time in jail, present, or both.
- Substance Abuse: The number of heroin and opioid related deaths in the state has grown by staggering figures. In 2016, 882 people died from these drug abuses. The overdose rate has also risen substantially and has prompted state and local officials to search for ways to control the problem. The use of Naloxone has helped reverse the effects of some overdose victims to save lives, but it is not an answer to growing numbers of those experiencing an opioid overdose.
RECENT LEGISLATIVE CHANGES
The marginalizing historic legislation perpetuates systemic poverty, crime, mental health issues, unemployment, homelessness, family disunity, and other collateral negatives.
Injustices such as lifetime loss of civil rights, no expungement laws, truth in sentencing, judges not utilizing sentencing guidelines, eliminating parole, 3 strikes law, and other racially disparaging legislation enable the poverty, crime, and other issues harming communities in Virginia and the U.S.
A criminal conviction or an arrest record should not automatically sentence a person to a life of unemployment or underemployment. Recent municipal ordinances and state executive orders resulted in “Ban the Box” and “Restoration of Rights” to provide a platform for additional historical disenfranchisement laws to become catalysts to end the stigmas facing our inner cities. The recent General Assembly elections provided hope for passing new, fair legislation. The following proposed bills were sponsored for the 2018 General Assembly:
Senate Bill SB100: New Sentencing Hearing; abolition of parole. Provides that a person who was sentenced by a jury prior to the date of the Supreme Court of Virginia decision in Fishback v. Commonwealth, 260 Va. 104 (June 9, 2000), in which the Court held that a jury should be instructed on the abolition of parole,
Senate Bill SB 93: Three Strikes Eligibility for Parole; at liberty between offenses. Provides that a person convicted of three separate felony offenses of murder, rape, or robbery by the presenting of firearms or other deadly weapon, or any combination of such offenses, shall be eligible for parole unless that person was at liberty between the three convictions and used a weapon during the commission of each offense.
Senate Bill SB 96 (2018) Juvenile offenders sentencing geriatric parole: Provides that for any juvenile felony a circuit court shall consider a juvenile’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change in determining the particular sentence to be imposed.
Senate Bill SB 102: Grand Larceny Threshold: Grand larceny threshold increases from $200 to $500 the threshold amount of money taken or value of goods or chattel taken at which the crime rises from petit larceny to grand larceny. The bill increases the threshold by the same amount for the classification of certain property crimes.
Senate Bill SB 94: Expungement of Police and Court Records; crimes defined. Expungement of police and court records; crimes defined. Provides that police and court records for all felony or misdemeanor offenses, or traffic infractions, are potentially eligible for expungement if the person seeking the expungement qualifies under the statute.
These proposed bills could change the historical systemic poverty that exists in Virginia. Not only will this new legislation correct the injustices of the past, it will allow for individuals in Virginia to experience the “American Dream” that has been a part of the freedoms and fabric the other citizens in this city, state, and country have experienced in their respective life times. Legislation that impedes progress towards a positive quality of life is a crime of moral turpitude. Of course, after generations of suppression, oppression, and depression, there exists a mindset of poverty that must be changed, particularly among people of color and all others who have been under these systemic, marginalizing laws.
Making a lasting change will take a concerted effort by legislators, law enforcement, prison administrators, social/mental agencies, churches, and others.. This is an opportunity to make the Commonwealth of Virginia a Redemptive state of second chances, rather than a Punitive state that keeps individuals on lifetime punishment.
Richard W. Walker