Reform The 'Madness' In Virginia's Penal Attitude Toward Nonviolent Offenders

Published 4:30 pm Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gene Johnson, director of Virginia's Department of Corrections, cut through the fog of prevailing wisdom at a state conference on prisoner re-entry, speaking words of genuine insight that, if acted upon, will have transformational power in our society.

We, the people, and our elected representatives, should listen carefully and explore the depth of Mr. Johnson's wisdom. Doing so to full effect will produce a safer, saner world for us all, one in which we fight crime rather than inadvertently cultivate its propagation.

“At some point in time we need to stop locking up people we're mad at,” Mr. Johnson said, “and lock up people we're afraid of.”

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Chisel that in stone. Make a monument of it.

Talk about getting to the point.

Those 22 words constitute a book's worth of sagacity on the subject of crime and punishment and are the philosophical linchpin of penal reform, on crime and the too-often overlooked mission of rehabilitating those who have committed crimes.

Yesterday was that point in time, given that 33,000 people are locked up in Virginia for nonviolent crimes, but yesterday is long gone.

Which leaves us with today to begin the steps necessary to reform the way we, as a state, administer our system of justice. Let's get started, using the words of the man who heads our department of corrections as a compass, and the wind that fills the sails of effective reform

Mr. Johnson said that all of us, but particularly the legislators we've sent to Richmond, must “look hard at our attitude about punishment.”

Throwing thousands of nonviolent offenders behind bars is unnecessary. There are more effective, and less expensive, forms of justice better calculated to encourage people on to the right path. The community service program promoted in Prince Edward with the Piedmont Regional Jail is a good example-those who qualify performing community service on weekends rather than serving time behind bars on weekends. The philosophy can be applied statewide.

Put a nonviolent offender behind bars and we only increase the likelihood of their becoming repeat offenders-nationally, about half of those who serve time in prison return to prison within three years of their release-and perhaps a violent offender some day.

“At some point in time we need to stop locking up people we're mad at and lock up people we're afraid of.”

If there were a set of Ten Commandments for criminal justice, those words would be one of those commandments, if not the most important.

And consider the source.

Gene M. Johnson has dedicated his professional life to Virginia's Department of Corrections and its mission for 44 years. His first job was as Recreation Supervisor at Southampton Correctional Center. He would become Assistant Superintendent of that facility.

Mr. Johnson first became Warden in 1975 and a year later was named the first Warden at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center, subsequently becoming Warden at the Southampton Correctional Center where he started his career and then Warden of the Powhatan Correctional Center.

Regional and then state positions with the Department of Corrections would follow. As Deputy Director of Operations in the Commonwealth, Mr. Johnson would oversee a network of major adult prisons, field units, work centers, diversion and detention centers, assorted treatment and work programs, probation and parole districts, local facilities and jails.

This man has seen, lived and knows “corrections” from A to Z. If anyone's voice should be considered as speaking with authority, and all that genuine authority implies and demands, Mr. Johnson's voice is that voice when it comes to corrections in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

No wonder he was appointed as Director of the Department of Corrections by Governor Warner in 2002, reappointed by Gov. Kaine in 2006, and still serving under a third governor, Bob McDonnell, today.

If Mr. Johnson says we should reconsider our policy of incarceration, then we should reconsider our policy of incarceration.

We should not lock up our future and throw away the key.

Engage meaningfully, instead, a statewide conversation about how to most effectively reform our penal code, especially as regards nonviolent offenders, and then implement the resulting legislation to achieve our agreed-upon goals.

Locking up people because we are mad is madness, especially because it does nothing to diminish the crimes we fear and may ultimately, in fact, only add to their number.