Editorial: New Study Reveals Effects of Mass Incarceration in Virginia | Editorial

Adapted from a Roanoke Times editorial

A little-heralded Virginia law reform has shed new light on which Commonwealth communities are suffering the most profound effects of mass incarceration — a term that serves as shorthand for the United States’ propensity to put people in jail rather than to tackle the underlying social issues that put people on the path to a life behind bars. The United States imprisons more people than any other country in the world, dwarfing even China, and when comparing national incarceration rates – the number of residents incarcerated per 100,000 people – the United States is also n ° 1.

A new study released by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts, matches Virginia prison inmates to the localities they come from, demonstrating an ability to analyze which cities, towns and counties have disproportionate amounts of their population locked up in correctional facilities. . The data may even highlight differences between neighborhoods.

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The study, a collaboration with advocacy group New Virginia Majority, reinforces already eerily familiar issues.

This report released on July 14 shows that Norfolk and Richmond – despite not being the most populous places in the Commonwealth – can claim the dubious distinction of having the most people incarcerated in jails or jails. When looking instead at the incarceration rate, the city with the highest rate in the state turns out to be Martinsville.

“Mass incarceration harms every community in the state,” Prison Policy Initiative communications director Mike Wessler said, but “those harms are not evenly distributed across the state. communities — large like Richmond and Norfolk, and small, like Martinsville — have particularly high incarceration rates.These communities also tend to have a higher proportion of black residents and lower incomes.”

The story of how the acquisition of this data became possible involves quite a recap. The Roanoke Times 10½ years ago called on the General Assembly to pass a bill that would change the way prisoners were counted in official censuses.

As in much of the country, “jail gerrymandering” was a common practice in Virginia. This involved counting prisoners as residents of the communities where they were incarcerated when drawing up electoral maps. Even though the prisoners did not vote, their numbers were used to determine the size of the electoral district where they were held, thus ensuring that those electoral districts were larger than they should have been. Conversely, the neighborhoods from which the inmates came were undercounted.

The bill backed by the Roanoke Times at the time took a further step towards reversing that process. We wrote, “Ideally, the General Assembly would simply allow all localities to not count prisoners in their local constituencies. The bill proposed at the time “does not go that far, but it would move the Commonwealth in the right direction”.

Backed by Republicans and endorsed by the NAACP, this bill actually became law, passing both houses unanimously and receiving the blessing from the pen of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The right direction came in 2020, when Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation introduced by Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News and Senator Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who arranged for people in jails and jails who are Virginia residents to be counted as part of their hometown population for purposes of redistricting.

Data compiled by the state for this purpose has given rise to this illuminating new study by the Prison Population Initiative.

“The data itself is a tool for state and local policymakers, advocates, law enforcement, and service providers to consider ways to do their jobs better,” Wessler said. “Can they better target reintegration services for people leaving jail and prison? Can they make different investments to avoid law enforcement involvement in the first place? Can they examine policing and prosecution models that disproportionately impact these communities with high incarceration rates? »

Wessler noted that it is not possible to create such a national database because the US Census Bureau continues to count prisoners where they are held. Virginia, ahead of the curve, is only the 9th state to end “gerrymandering in prison.” We agree that this data could be a valuable tool for governments, advocates, journalists and more, and hope that exploring its depths will lead to positive developments for the Commonwealth.

Read the Prison Policy Initiative and New Virginia Majority report on https://bit.ly/2022IncarcReport.

Denise W. Whigham