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Column: Punishment Without Rehabilitation

“Tough on crime” is a phrase in which elected officials delight. It means that the people they represent believe they are working hard to ensure the public safety. “Fiscally responsible” is another such phrase, which says to the electorate that their representative is being a good steward of the public money. I like to think that I am both, but as Republicans drive to make Richmond come to the partisan standstill that Washington faces again and again, I have to believe I may not want those accolades if it means poor policy that hurts Virginians.

While “tough on crime” surely applies to someone who has ended predatory lending in the bail bond industry and expanded the effectiveness of emergency protective orders, I have to say I am concerned about what we take it to mean in Virginia.

We have a “tough on crime” attorney general who spends his time fighting federal healthcare and attacking a woman’s right to choose. We have “tough on crime” members of the General Assembly who would rather punish children offenders as adults whenever possible, rather than turn to better, cheaper alternatives to rehabilitate them and turn them into upstanding, taxpaying members of society.

We also have a prison system that is systematically underfunded, and it has turned to punishment-only as a result. In our most secure prisons, we turn repeatedly to solitary confinement as a means of keeping control, and the prolonged use of solitary confinement has proven to be dangerous to mental health.

The questions all this raises is when did our system for public safety turn from being about punishment and rehabilitation to only being about punishment? In the long-term, rehabilitation programs used in conjunction with imprisonment are cheaper for the tax-paying public and release individuals less likely to commit another crime.

Charniele Herring (D-46) serves as the House Democratic Whip and represents Alexandria City in the Virginia General Assembly. She serves on the Courts of Justice and Science and Technology Committees. For more information, visit www.charnieleherr... or on twitter @c_herring.

The part I find the most egregious part of this cycle of being “tough on crime” is what it means we are doing to children. While there are some crimes that are so horrendous that we must try a child as an adult, I believe we must make every effort to give the people at the very beginning of their lives a chance to be rehabilitated and become good, full members of our society. To that end, I have introduced HB 1198 as a response to legislation that gives even more latitude to prosecutors in charging children as adults. My legislation simply ensures a last appeal to the circuit court for children found in this situation.

I believe people who commit a crime must be punished, but we must also keep in mind that not only compassion, but also fiscal responsibility dictates that we as a society give children the best chance at a better life. That means we must make better use of rehabilitation programs in place of continuing to try and convince people that “tough on crime” means only repeated and worsening punishment. So, I am happy to be “tough on crime,” I am just going to be smart about it, and I hope you will join me.

By Charniele Herring

Delegate (D-46)