Opinion: Criminal justice policy matters at the polls in November

Elections are a constant feature of life in Virginia. Hardly a year goes by without the casting of ballots for one office or another, and 2023 is no exception. Virginians are facing yet another election season and constant campaigning with the whole General Assembly up for reelection.

With primaries concluded and November coming into view, many candidates are now working to develop legislative platforms that combine smart policy with broad appeal. These contenders should explore opportunities available in the criminal justice realm.

Prison Fellowship — the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, and a provider of programming at several Virginia correctional facilities — has seen firsthand the impact of criminal justice done right. With nearly 50 years of work behind bars, Prison Fellowship has witnessed that treating people with dignity and respect can transform prisons, families, and communities.

Grounded in this experience, we advocate for policies that punish crime fairly, promote rehabilitation and offer pathways to opportunity for those who have left crime behind. Across state legislatures and on Capitol Hill, Prison Fellowship has convened people of all political stripes to support proposals that reflect these biblical values. After all, everyone benefits from safe communities, just courts and prisons oriented to rehabilitation. So while bipartisan support for almost anything can seem unlikely these days, all of us can rally around thoughtful proposals that make Virginia’s criminal justice system smarter and more effective.

Take, as an example, the parole transparency initiative (Senate Bill 1361) recently signed into law and set to take effect in 2024. By focusing on specific policy concerns offered by voices on both sides of the parole debate, the bill won support from ideologically diverse stakeholders and passed the General Assembly with decisive bipartisan votes.

The bill addressed concerns such as those articulated by Attorney General Jason Miyares on the need for more transparency in Parole Board decision-making. SB1361 will illuminate the agency’s work by making some Parole Board proceedings public, strengthening data reporting requirements, and allowing crime victims to share virtual testimony with board members.

Yet SB1361 also appealed to advocates who wanted to make sure people in prison could understand how the Parole Board views rehabilitative progress and suitability for community supervision. Speaking to these concerns, the bill ensures that prisoners have access to evidence used by the board to make decisions about their case. It also requires that the board provide individualized explanations for the granting or denial of parole for each case. While only a small percentage of prisoners in Virginia are eligible for parole, these changes will lead to more just processes regarding a key decision that will shape their future. Assurance of a fairer and more transparent parole decision will incentivize incarcerated, parole-eligible Virginians to complete programming and prepare for reentry success — making the commonwealth safer.

Prison Fellowship is proud to have worked with lawmakers and stakeholders from both sides of the aisle to develop and move SB1361. We are confident these revisions will build public confidence in the parole system, and we hope that they will invite lawmaker discussion about the rehabilitation that can occur in prison and how tools like parole can encourage that transformation.

But parole transparency was just one opportunity among many. We can design a fairer, more liberty-oriented voting rights restoration process for Virginians leaving prison. We can revise laws that hold back people with a criminal record from finding meaningful work. And we can create more constructive correctional environments that challenge prisoners to change their lives in concrete ways while incarcerated.

This election season, those seeking public office should apply thoughtful consideration to solving these challenges. By beginning that work today, lawmakers can set up a General Assembly in 2024 marked by policy solutions that improve the lives and safety of all Virginians.

David Jiménez is senior manager of government affairs with Prison Fellowship, with headquarters in Leesburg. 

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