The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy believes in mercy and compassion. Our faith traditions recognize that we all sin and transgress from both God’s laws and human laws, and yet we believe in the fundamental power of forgiveness, redemption and restoration. VICPP recognizes that the U.S. has a crisis of mass incarceration. Instead of educating our youth, attacking poverty and eliminating racial barriers to jobs, the U.S. (and Virginia) has imprisoned and destroyed too many young people of color. As a nation, we have practiced a “new Jim Crow” (see book by Michelle Alexander).
VICPP believes that those who have committed crimes should have the opportunity to redeem themselves, find work that can support them and their families and restore their access to the benefits of society. VICPP seeks a prison system that is more focused on rehabilitation than punishment. A clear and tragic example of this are suspension of drivers’ licenses for nonpayment of court fees instead of using constructive measures which allow the individual to hold a valid license. VICPP believes that Virginia should restore drivers’ licenses for low-income people who have had them suspended primarily because they are unable to pay the court fines and fees.
We also are in favor of raising the Commonwealth’s threshold for felony theft from $200, where it’s been since 1980. Virginia’s felony threshold is the lowest in the nation. Thirty states have set their felony larceny threshold at $1,000 or more, including Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi and North Carolina and 46 states have set their threshold at $500 or more. Having such a low felony threshold results in severe punishments for young people who steal sneakers, jackets or other tempting items. Although stealing needs to have consequences, we shouldn’t destroy people’s lives in the process. Felony convictions can result in jail sentences as long as 12 years. With a recidivism rate of 82 percent, most of those entering the prison “system” stay for their whole lives.
Studies show that raising the felony threshold does not increase theft. At least 12 states that have raised their threshold to $1,000 or more saw a decline in thefts. Raising the threshold would save Virginia taxpayers millions annually in terms of the cost of incarceration. Larceny convictions accounted for one out of every four individuals incarcerated in 2012, at a cost of approximately $25,000 a year per individual. In 2008 the Virginia Department of Corrections estimated that adjusting the threshold to $500 would save taxpayers more than $3.5 million in saved prison bed costs in 2013 alone.
Finally, we are working to explore ways congregations can assist courts in developing community service programs as alternatives to jail time.