Today the Justice Policy Institute released a report characterizing Virginia’s justice system as expensive, ineffective, and unfair. Despite decreasing violent crime rates, consist with the rest of the country, the number of arrests in Virginia has barely budged, dropping a mere 1.1%, says JPI.
Virginia’s Justice System: Expensive, Ineffective and Unfair
With the 8th highest jail incarceration rate in the U.S., 1 of every 214 adult Virginians is behind bars in county jails across the state; African-American youth over-represented in the juvenile justice system; and the Commonwealth’s overreliance on incarceration – largely as a result of arresting Virginians for drug offenses – Virginia has an over-burdened correctional system unable to consistently provide services or safety.
Here is the full report in pdf format:
Virginia’s Justice System: Expensive, Ineffective and Unfair (full JPI report)
The report points to increasing drug arrests as a source of revenue enhancement for law enforcement as violent crimes decrease:
Similar to other jurisdictions across the country, drug arrests in Virginia have increased in contrast to violent and property offense arrests, to a large extent negating the decline in overall crime. As more police funding has been tied to performance measures (i.e., number of arrests), police departments have often been forced to shift focus to low‐level, non‐violent drug violations as a means to help maintain or increase numbers and, thus, funding. Unable to make arrest quotas through arrests for serious crime, enforcement has turned to arresting people who otherwise would go unnoticed and pose a relatively low public safety risk to communities. As drug crimes are rarely reported by community members to police, upward trends in this area clearly reflect a shift in the use of law enforcement resources toward crimes that must be sought out rather than reported.
It also illustrates how Virginia courtrooms are playing fields tilted in favor of prosecution:
The state’s indigent defense system has been heavily criticized as insufficient. The system, which pits prosecutors representing the state against public defenders or court‐appointed attorneys for those who cannot afford their own counsel, claims to put these two parties on equal footing. However, while the two positions are paid through similar pay schedules, prosecutors in many jurisdictions are given salary supplements that can raise their pay substantially and have more access to funds beneficial in preparing and presenting a case, such as expert witness fees.13 Court‐appointed defense attorneys, on the other hand, must work within statutory pay caps that greatly limit the amount of time and effort they devote to each case.
Additionally, the appointment of an attorney for those who cannot afford one, does not actually come free in Virginia. Defendants may be charged “up to $1,235 per count for some felonies” for a public defender’s services. Virginia is one of only a few states that does not currently have provisions for these charges to be waived. Of the fifteen states with the largest prison populations, thirteen impose a charge for counsel, often discouraging defendants from accepting counsel; a practice that makes conviction and commitment more likely.
Economically-disadvantaged members of society are arrested for vices that have been criminalized, and then they are denied the tools necessary to successfully surmount the legal hurdles they are forced to deal with, making conviction much more likely. It is not surprise then that, according to JPI, “on an average day one of every 214 adult Virginians are in jail” and that “More Virginians are in prison than in jail; one of every 179 people.”.
Drug enforcement also disproportionately affects people of color, says JPI. African Americans make up less than 20% of the adult population of Virginia, which is grossly out of sync with the arrest data:
In 2011, more than 16,000 African Americans were arrested for drug offenses in Virginia, 44 percent of all drug arrests in the state. This phenomenon is not new; Human Rights Watch reported that, in 2006, African American drug arrests in the state made up 53 percent of all drug arrests. Research has shown that African American drug use is typically less than that of whites, on the whole, making their overrepresentation a function of justice system priorities rather than an equitable response to law violations.
Policy change may be years in coming, but fortunately, Virginians need not wait to bring justice to their legal system. Servings as jurors, they can ALREADY serve justice by exercising the juror’s traditional, legal authority of jury nullification and refuse to enforce unjust laws against their neighbors. Each time another person is forced into the legal system, lives are destroyed, families are broken, and communities are torn further apart. It is each person’s highest duty as a juror, not to punish people because the government wants them to do so, but to deliver a just verdict, even if it means setting aside the law to do so. And in consistently doing so, juries in Virginia can send feedback to the legal system, discouraging government agents from pursuing profit by harming peaceful people and throwing society into chaos.