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The Courage of Our Convictions

Saturday, April 1, 1995

O n Father's Day 1986, Richmond Police Detective George Taylor stopped Wayne DeLong for a routine traffic violation. DeLong, recently released from prison after serving time for murder, shot and killed the policeman.

Leo Webb was a divinity student at Richmond's Virginia Union University who liked helping people. One of those he helped was a man named James Steele, on parole for a malicious wounding. One day in 1991, Steele entered the bakery where Webb worked part time, shot him to death, took his money, and went out partying.

Tragic as such stories are, what makes these two particularly disheartening is that both could have been easily prevented. Both killers, jailed earlier for violent crimes, spent only a fraction of their sentences in prison. We are now paying the dividends of a liberal justice system that refuses to take punishment seriously: Virginia has witnessed a 28 percent increase in criminal violence over the last five years. Three out of every four violent crimes--murder, armed robbery, rape, assault--are now committed by repeat offenders.

This is why my administration pushed through legislation, which took effect on January 1, 1995 that will impose penalties for rape, murder, and armed robbery more than twice the national average for those crimes. We have abolished parole, established the principle of truth-in-sentencing, and increased as much as fivefold the amount of time that violent offenders will actually spend in jail. Experience vindicates what commonsense has always told us: The only foolproof crime-prevention technique is incarceration.

Our new system is attempting to unravel 30 years of paper-tiger laws based on the questionable philosophy that people can change, criminals can be rehabilitated, and every violent criminal--even a murderer--deserves a second chance. The new law in Virginia will prevent thousands of crimes, save lives, save money, and restore trust in the criminal justice system. Despite this, we now face entrenched opposition from liberals in the General Assembly, who hope to thwart reform by withholding funds to build the minimal number of prison facilities needed to house Virginia's most violent inmates.

A few weeks after taking office in January 1994, I created the Commission on Parole Abolition and Sentencing Reform. It was a bipartisan commission of prosecutors, judges, crime victims, law-enforcement officers, business leaders, and legal scholars. William Barr, a former attorney general of the United States, and Richard Cullen, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, co-chaired the commission. They had a daunting task.

I called for a special session of the General Assembly in September 1994 to focus the public's and the legislature's attention on this issue. I gave the commission six months to demonstrate the need for change, develop a detailed plan, and explain its costs and implementation.

We were quickly able to show why a complete overhaul was necessary. Convicted felons were serving about one-third of their sentences on average, and many served only one-sixth. Violent criminals were no exception. First- degree murderers were given average sentences of 35 years, but spent an average of only 10 years behind bars. Rapists were being sentenced to nine years and serving four. Armed robbers received sentences averaging 14 years and served only about four.

Amazingly, a prior conviction for a violent crime did not affect this phenomenon. Even murderers, rapists, and armed robbers who had already served time for similar offenses were receiving the same sentences and serving the same amount of time as first offenders.

Statewide, the violent crime rate had risen 28 percent in five years, even though the crime-prone age bracket (15 to 24 years) was shrinking. Criminologists widely regard trends in the size of this demographic group as the best predictor of criminal activity. Unfortunately for Virginians, the crime-prone-age population is expected to rise sharply in the state beginning in 1996--all the more reason to press forward with reform. The peak age for murder and armed robbery has been dropping steadily; by 1993, it stood at 18 years for both crimes. More than three-quarters of all violent criminals in the system in 1993 had prior convictions.


The Plan

Only a multi-pronged approach can begin to turn these numbers around. Virginia's new law means, first of all, eliminating discretionary parole, in which a parole board can release an offender after he has served only part of his sentence. In Virginia, this policy clearly was being abused: offenders received 30 days of good time for every 30 days they served-- effectively cutting their sentences in half as soon as they came in the door.

But this is not all. We need to eliminate "good time" as well. In order to encourage good behavior among inmates and allow correctional officers to maintain order, the commission proposed a system of earned-sentence credits. This system would allow inmates to earn a maximum of 54 days per year--a dramatic reduction from the average of 300 days they had been given in the past.

Long before our bill became law, we held town meetings across the state to solicit advice from citizens, and discussed the plan's details with prosecutors, victims-rights groups, corrections experts, and criminologists. The need for more prison space became a primary concern. Even before I took office, Virginia was expected to double its prison population by the year 2005. The state was facing a shortfall of 7,100 prison beds by 1999. At the same time, opponents of the plan were already carping about too little spending on crime prevention and education and too much on building prisons.

Obviously, judges need some mechanism to guide their sentencing decisions. A system with no parole and no "good time" could not afford 70- year sentences for drug dealers or 150-year sentences for armed robbers. But how much do we increase the time served for violent offenders? Our commission found an answer by evaluating the relationship of recidivism to time served and age of release. The data showed that the longer an offender remained behind bars, the less likely he is to commit another crime after finishing his sentence. Similarly, the older the offender upon release, the less his propensity to commit more crime. In fact, after 37 years of age, the likelihood of violent crime drops dramatically.

Although preventing criminals from committing further acts of violence was the primary goal, the increases had to reflect the notion of retribution as well. We wanted Virginia to send a message to violent criminals: We will not tolerate violence, and if you commit a violent crime, you will stay in prison until you're too old to commit another one.

Virginia increased prison time for violent criminals as follows:

  • 100 percent increase for first-time violent offenders.
  • 125 percent for first-time murderers, rapists, and armed robbers.
  • 300 percent for those with previous convictions for assault, burglary, or malicious wounding.
  • 500 percent for those with previous convictions for murder, rape, or armed robbery.

To target the young violent offender, we counted comparable juvenile offenses as felony convictions when determining a sentence. For example, if John Smith is found guilty in a juvenile court of armed robbery at age 14, and was convicted of another armed robbery at age 19, the sentencing guidelines call for a 500 percent increase in the time he normally would have served under the old system.

By abolishing a bankrupt parole system, and by drastically reforming the "good time" credit provisions, Virginia courtrooms are redefining what the truth-in-sentencing debate is really about. Under our system, every inmate convicted of a violent crime will serve a minimum of 85 percent of his or her sentence. Nationwide, criminals on average serve well below 50 percent of their sentences. There is simply no surer way for the state to protect its citizens from society's most dangerous members.


Saving Lives and Money

Had the law been in effect nine years ago, it would have saved the life of Detective Taylor. Had it been in effect four years ago, Leo Webb would be alive today.

The most conservative estimates show that more than 4,300 felony crimes would have been prevented between 1986 and 1993 if the current system had been in place. That number is based on actual convictions--real cases, not projections.

Over the next 10 years, the new law will prevent at least 119,000 felonies, including 26,000 violent crimes. Because of those averted violent crimes, an estimated 475 lives will be saved, 3,700 women will be spared from rape, and more than 11,300 aggravated assaults will not be committed. As a result, citizens will save more than $2.7 billion in direct costs.

Back in September, when it became clear that the legislation would pass with overwhelming support, some vocal opponents claimed that abolishing parole was a declaration of war on young black males. They demanded that the Commonwealth spend more money on prevention programs, and charged that, by focusing on punishment, we were merely catering to "white fear." Their arguments fell on deaf ears.

The crime prevented as a result of the new law will benefit the African- American community--one-fifth of Virginia's population--more than any other group. Of the preventable murders that occurred between 1986 and 1993, about 65 percent involved black victims. For assaults during that same period, about 60 percent of the victims were black. Taylor and Webb were both African Americans.

Of all the crimes committed by recidivists during that same period, 60 percent would have been prevented if the current law had been in place. There is no other prevention program that can show even a fraction of this success. That is not to say that other prevention programs are not valid or important. However, it is clear that when it comes to violent offenders, incarceration is the most just and the most efficient.

Virginia has been spending an average of $658 million in taxpayers' money each year on handling recidivists. This is the cost of new investigations, new arrests, and new trials. The total cost of the prison construction needs for the next 10 years is about $750 million. The new law will force us to build more prisons--but not many more. Virginia would have doubled its prison population in the next 10 years anyway.

The difference is that under the old system, the ratio of violent criminals among the prison population to non-violent has been 50:50. Marijuana dealers, embezzlers, and petty thieves have been serving time in the same $40,000-per-year hard cells as murderers, rapists, and armed robbers. Under the new guidelines, the inmate ratio will be 70 percent violent, 30 percent non-violent. This is obviously a more cost-effective use of medium- and maximum-security prison space.

Try telling that, however, to the liberals in the General Assembly. I asked lawmakers in February for $402.6 million as a first installment in revamping our prison system. They voted to provide only $104.4 million. They are shortchanging prison construction, making it more likely that dangerous criminals will be released early--and be back in our neighborhoods. Increasing prison terms without increasing prison capacity is precisely the mistake that too many other states have already made.

Part of the problem with the current system of incarceration is its near inability to distinguish between dangerous criminals and the more routine, petty offenders. Under our plan, we are building low-cost work centers to house first-time and non-violent offenders. These work centers operate at about half the cost per inmate as a standard prison, and they ensure that the inmates get work opportunities while incarcerated. The average length of stay at a work center will be about 10 to 18 months. We can build these facilities quickly, freeing up bed space in the prisons for violent criminals.

The abolition of parole and establishment of truth-in-sentencing rules was the centerpiece of my campaign for governor in 1993. During that campaign, critics claimed my approach was too drastic and too costly. Pundits and politicians still doubt that Virginia can overhaul its entire criminal- justice system without breaking the bank. Those naysayers failed to hear the public's demand for change. The people of Virginia--particularly crime victims and their families--are tired of seeing criminals walk free after serving only a fraction of their sentences. Businessmen can't afford to watch deals collapse because potential clients are concerned about crime. Prosecutors and police are frustrated that their hard work often amounts to abbreviated prison stints for criminals.

In order to overturn the status quo approach to crime reduction, we listened to all those people and presented extensive research to show that what we had been doing was not working. Public safety is the primary responsibility of government. Without it, nothing else can succeed. Education, economic development, and health care all suffer when people feel threatened.

Virginians came together to formulate and implement this reform. We looked at what North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and the federal government had done in the area of sentencing reform. We borrowed some of the best aspects of those systems and avoided some of the mistakes they made. In the end, we did it the Virginia way.

The principle that guided this effort, and should guide policymakers in all issues, is honesty. Easy-release rules prevent judges and juries from preempting the community's judgment about the proper punishment for illegal conduct. Under the new law, judges will not have to play guessing games when imposing sentences. Police officers will not have to see the same criminals out on the streets only a year after their last arrest. Criminals will know that they cannot beat the system. Crime victims and their families will finally see justice done. Virginia's citizens can now trust that their government is working to make this Commonwealth a safe place to live, to work, and to raise families.

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