Roles responds to Earley’s comments

Brent Finnegan -- May 8th, 2007

Yesterday I posted about former AG Mark Earley’s comments on prison reform. Today Mark Obenshain’s opponent, Maxine Roles emailed me this response to Earley’s remarks:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this issue.

There is no set procedure for reentry when released from prison. As you may know, in the last few years, there has been a task force appointed by the Governor and a joint subcommittee study set up by the General Assembly to address this issue in Virginia. Also, we are now part of a federally funded pilot project that has been established to guide and monitor the reentry of violent offenders, and we have begun some small pilot projects of our own to utilize volunteer mentors to assist those without resources.

During the past two Sessions and recent subcommittee meetings, it was shocking to see how even members of the General Assembly had not realized that, as we piecemeal different criminal justice laws, no one has looked at it as a whole to see the ramifications. Let me sight you an example: If you have no one waiting for you on the outside, you still only depart with a check for $25, which will not buy you one night, much less a meal and one night, anywhere. (Now, before anyone balks about giving someone $25, I will point out that most of these individuals have that reserve money taken from their own funds during their stay.) Most peculiar of all is that no valid identification is provided by the state upon release. Now, if you have no ID, how do you even cash the check? When you are released from prison, you are generally not accepted into public housing units where many of these individuals’ families may be living and there are many laws that hinder or prevent felons from going to a homeless shelter. So, what we have done is to tell them that when you get out, you will almost be forced to commit another crime so you can pay for food and shelter.

We currently don’t do much of anything in the realm of rehabilitation, and I am sad to say that many of the people who guard these inmates do not conduct themselves in any way appropriate to promote good behavior or set an example of good behavior. The problem is that the system is not set up as punishment or securing public safety anymore. Our current prison system is set up as an industrial complex that it is all about the almighty dollar – money for the industry and false promises of economic development for depressed rural areas. Some figures indicate that nearly 27,000 out of the approximately 32,000 incarcerated individuals are in prison for non-violent crimes, many of which are victimless crimes. What are we looking to prove by locking these men and women up for years and years? They are not paying back society in prison. They are not making restitution. They are not paying court costs, supporting their families or contributing to the tax base and the local economy. We are often supporting them in prison and their families on public assistance, all while having to make up for the loss of their contribution in taxes and economic spending. Why? Wouldn’t it be a far more effective punishment for a nonviolent money crime to sentence a person to an eighty hour work week with strict monitoring and lots of community service? Wouldn’t that be better for our communities as a whole?

If we got smart on crime instead of just tough on crime, we would spend less money and do more with programs that help prevent crime and help those that are on the road to commit harsher crimes. People say that it isn’t the state’s responsibility to do this. Well maybe it isn’t, but under the current system you are paying anyway and doing it at a higher cost. In addition, with a smart on crime and cost effective approach, we would have more money for the under funded law enforcement agencies.

As for Gemeinschaft, one person who was not eligible to enter the program but was inadvertently approved by the Department of Corrections should not be used as an example to attack a program that has been very beneficial to individuals, families, the community, and overall public safety. A JMU study in recent years indicated that the transitional therapeutic community program at Gemeinschaft cuts the likelihood of recidivism in half, at a minimum, while allowing individuals to support themselves and their families and pay off some of their debt. That should speak a lot for the program. We should remember that these individuals are completing their sentences and coming back into our society with or without this type of program. Aren’t we better off when they are successful?

I was very disappointed and a little outraged that my opponent distorted the facts surrounding the circumstances at Gemeinschaft. (And, the media was not blameless here either.) The idea that we are suppose to believe that these individuals are sex offenders who might hurt our children is a very irresponsible misrepresentation of the truth. The idea that the house in question (near the school) was full of violent people who were part of the DOC prerelease program was another fabrication. This house is actually used for those participants who have completed the program and living and working in Harrisonburg and need affordable housing in order to continue to pay down things like fines, restitution, and child support.

The idea that the city needed notice of things being done by Gemeinschaft, because they were unaware of the purchase of the house spoken of by my opponent and the media, is the biggest piece of fiction of all. Yes, I said fiction. I have actually seen the letter from the Office of City Manager, dated June 10, 2004, stating “that the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Application Review Committee [was] recommending to the City Council that [the] Aftercare/Housing project be included in the 2004-2005 Action Plan to receive funding in the amount of $15,000.” Yep, the city was offering to contribute. The letter further stated that this information would be posted for a “30 day public comment period.” Now, can you explain how my opponent and certain media could claim that the city (and even citizens) was unaware of the plans?

Overall, I have seen nothing but strong community support for the Gemeinschaft program, and in return these participants give so much back in community service (even to the youth program that was mentioned by the press as being across the street from the aftercare house). I am not sure who my opponent claims to have been representing with his proposed legislation, and he made his decisions prior to ever touring the program or gathering real information. Perhaps that was the point?

Mistakes happen all the time. That is what makes us human. But, it is unacceptable for any representative of the people to exploit mistakes made by nonviolent individuals to create an overwhelming atmosphere of fear so that they can manipulate the citizens they represent. Of course, this is even more appalling when the information used to create this panic is false.

Thankfully in this case, the deception has not halted a valuable program and I am sure that the Department of Corrections will take the necessary steps to make sure that only appropriate individuals are sent to the program in Harrisonburg. But in the meantime, we should recognize these individuals are contributing to society, they pay taxes, do community service work and are on the road to not re-offending. Isn’t this the purpose of incarceration – making our communities better and safer?

So, I do agree with our former Attorney General, Mark Earley, and his comments regarding the need to “re-examine the whole issue.” I am also happy to see bipartisan efforts in this regard, even though my opponent has seemingly been one of the few dissenters from this common sense.

-Maxine

16 Responses to “Roles responds to Earley’s comments”

  1. Ms. Roles makes a lot of sense in her comments and provided enlightenment to me about those released from the custody of the Department of Corrections.

    I’d like to see Mark Obenshain rebut/reply to her comments.

    Further, I’d like to have each candidate address the issue of full-restoration of civil rights to those no longer under the custody or monitoring of the Commonwealth (without making application to either the Governor and/or the Courts). If sentencing actually “fit the crime”, I’ve said for a long time that I’d be in favor of that.

  2. charles chenault says:

    Brent – could you call me?
    Thanks – Charlie

  3. Frank says:

    Well David, who would be in charge of your “fit the crime” punishment?

  4. David Miller says:

    Maxine

    Thank you for a clear and rational approach to the issue. I have grown accustomed to canned, sound bites that don’t approach a problem with reason. Your arguments are not those that I would expect, thank you.

    David Briggman; I agree and would very much like to hear a response from Mark Obenshain.

  5. Judges who were accountable to the electorate — as opposed to the General Assembly.

    David Miller, others…I would also add that unless civil rights are automatically restored to those felons released from the watchful eye of the Commonwealth, what possible incentive are they provided with to keep their noses clean?

    I mean, if they’re able to find employment, Virginia and the feds are taking the same amount of taxes out as they are from those with no criminal records…except the felons lack many civil rights which are taken from them merely because they may have written a bad check for $200.01.

  6. David Miller says:

    Like you said Dave, may the crime fit the punishment. Someone who writes a bad check (they hold a special place in my heart) should pay that debt, and then be able to protect their family. Someone who kills, robs or whatever violent crime you want to quote, probably shouldn’t have all of their rights restored (like the right to bear arms). It’s about common sense, which isn’t palatable to a 30 second ad during an election.

  7. Ms. L says:

    Go, Maxine- It is refreshing to read something that actually makes sense. Is anyone listening?

    I was always led to believe that people in jail/prison are the blood thirsty, murderers, rapists, child molesters-Dangerous people. Unfortunately that is not the case at all. Approximately 80-85% of inmates are non-violent offenders, and many have substance abuse or mental health issues.

    I don’t think longer sentences reduce re-offending, actual rehab does. But the Dept. Of Corrections is a booming business. I was checking out the employment opportunities and was astounded-
    Assistant Warden position beginning at approimately $80,000 with the requirements listed at H. S. diploma OR equivelant. These are the people allowed to run the prisons? And check out the Parole Board salaries: Ms. Helen Fahey, is collecting over $120,000 a year, a raise from $115,000 last year.

    My faith in the “system” is weak. Punishment should fit the crime, but it does’nt. You are at the mercy of the Judge, how much you can pay for an attorney, etc. There could be almost identical circumstances and sentences can differ by YEARS.

    Regarding re-entry, Does it not make sense for people to come out to places like Gemeinschaft where they can get supervision and support? I believe that if you give someone a taste of sucess, they will usually want more. DOC seems to have a significant interest in re-offenders- job security.

    I would prefer to have my tax money spent in prevention and rehab VS unproductive punishment. You can pay before or after the crime, and right now we are paying a lot more “after”. One possible idea is- for example, instead of paying $30,000 to $80,000 (geriatric) per inmate per year, I would suggest paying $35-45,000 for Probation/Parole officers to monitor ex-offenders. Have the case load be 10-15, a case load that can be reasonably supervised instead of 50-75. And supervise,support, encourage them while holding them accountable.

    I do understand that there are a certain number of people that SHOULD be in prison and should NEVER get out. I am happy to support their stay in DOC. But there are too many incarcerated for “stupid” crimes, and I agree that we could be smarter on crime and still preserve public safety. However, I think having approximately 25,000 inmates in the state of Virginia is embarrassing. The entire system needs to be evaluated.

    I realize that I do not have all of the answers and probably need to learn more about the system, but I still think we could certainly do better.

    Better go….it’s getting late.

  8. Miss Todd says:

    this comment is from someone who has not only been incarcerated but has been out for five years.I have worked and been a productive member of society and have not been in trouble since.I was reformed and the experience is one I never want to go through ever!I went into jail three months pregnant my sentence wa 12 months so I recieved a furlough had my baby and went back to jail.I complied with the furlough I applied for the work release program and was denied.I had a friend take care of my baby but why do some get the opprutunities and others are denied?I would have complied.if I wasn’t trust worthy ten why was I allowed to walk out of the jail go to the hospital on my own No guard and be there three days?No police officer was ever there I came and went freely around the hospital bounding with my baby and recovering from a c-section.Had I been allowed to get a work release I could have been working,paying fines,saving money for my childrena nd myself to get a place.Trust that I know more than anyone that there are people who should never ever see the light of day but for each person there are different circumstances.No women got the work release program while I was there but the guys who weren’t pregnant who didn’t have children to raise were given work release.I could go on and on but there needs to be some scrutity on county jails as well.

  9. MikeFus says:

    The church I attend has quite a few individuals who are very active in prison ministry, including several staff persons at Gemeinschaft, The Diversion Center in Linville, and of course our area prisons. We have several ex-offenders who attend regularly, and are often visited by men from the Diversion Center, along with their warden. These men often give testimonies of the positive changes in their lives, and have proven to be courteous and extremely well-mannered. It is unfortunate that many seem to want to blindly assume that all folks who are incarcerated are generically “bad”, and that most have no hope of becoming any better. It seems to me that we need more, not less programs like Gemeinschaft and The Diversion Center.

  10. finnegan says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Miss Todd.

    Like Mike, I know a lot of people who are/were involved in prison ministries. I remember helping out and visiting prisons when I was a kid. I couldn’t imagine trying to recover from a big mistake in a place like that without outside help, or without a network to help once you get out.

  11. Maxine Roles says:

    I would like to go on the record as saying that I believe individuals who have completed their sentences for committing a crime should be afforded the opportunity to have certain civil rights restored as long as they continue to meet their obligations to society.

    As you may know, the Constitution of Virginia provides that a person’s civil rights are permanently forfeited for those who commit a felony offense. It is only by petition to the governor for restoration that these rights can be reinstated. While Governor Warner made changes, that have made this process simpler and more expedient, it would be only by a vote of the citizens to amend the Constitution that automatic restoration could take place. So far, the majority party in the General Assembly has not allowed the appropriate resolution to pass through the legislature so that the PEOPLE can be presented with a ballot question as to whether or not the General Assembly could create laws to automatically restore the right to vote to former nonviolent offenders. My opponent is one of those who has continually voted against allowing the citizens of this Commonwealth the opportunity to vote on this issue for themselves. (And, I should point out that the proposed legislation in the past several years would have only applied to nonviolent offenders.)

    While I do be believe that certain rights should not be automatically restored, such as blanket gun rights to those who may be a danger to the public, and certain offenders may need to be monitored or restricted based on the type of crime they participated in, especially when it relates to voter fraud, I would support this issue being brought to the voters by ballot question. In my view, this fringes on taxation without representation for many, and we just continue to ask these individuals to be responsible members of society while we continue to effectively exclude them from our society.

    I would be very interested in hearing from the voters in this district on how they feel.

    -Maxine

  12. Ms. Roles, if I might interject. There are tools, as you know, such a civil committment being used against “sexual predators” which could, in theory, be used against anyone perceived to be a threat against the general safety and wellbeing of the public, such that the offender could be committed “civilly” until such time as that individual could prove to a court that he/she is no longer such a threat.

    In the alternative, the offender could be ordered by a court to engage, or not engage, in certain conduct, therapy, drug testing, whatever, and probation officers be granted to charge those offenders with either civil or criminal contempt until such time as the offender complies with the direction(s) of the court. As we’ve seen here recently in Harrisonburg, civil contempt can hold one’s butt in jail indefinitely.

    In other words, I’m in favor of granting total restoration of rights to all felons, assuming of course, that those who commit violent crimes aren’t sentenced to 25 years in jail — with 24 years, 6 months suspended as judges are known to do here in Rockingham.

  13. Maxine Roles says:

    Dave,

    You have made a very good point.

    We do unfortunately have mothers writing bad checks or shoplifting to support their children getting years, while a rapist sentenced in the same Court gets a suspended sentence, or we see a kid with three pills getting fifteen years, while a child molester with thirteen counts does house arrest.

    These are concerns we have to address as we work on restoration.

    Still, we first have to amend the Constitution in order for any of these things to even be considered, because the Constitution of Virginia requires permanent disenfranchisement and only allows the governor to grant restoration via the clemency process. By law, the issue must first be voted on two years in a row with an intervening election and placed on the ballot for the voters to decide that the General Assembly can act to make changes.

    It is up to the voters to grant the legislature authority to act, but first we must have the legislature willing to allow the voters to vote on the issue.

    -Maxine

  14. William says:

    Why did Mark Obenshain go after Gemeinschaft?

    Why is Mark Obenshain so bent on making people scared to death of everything?

    Why did he start this campaign to hurt Gemeinschaft without input from the community? without input from the schools nearby? without input from the city? and without knowing anything about Gemeinschaft? What is his goal?

    Are you actively trying to get Obenshain on the blog to answer some questions? or is he too good to answer to the people who vote for him?

    I hope you take him out Maxine!

  15. finnegan says:

    William,

    I emailed him and invited him to participate in the discussion. We’ll see what comes of it.

  16. Ms. L says:

    All I can say to Maxine’s comments is : Amen! Amen!

    And Dave, I hear what you are saying. The problem as I see it is- Who determines the definition of “violent”? I have heard of extremely violent charges being reduced to practically nothing, and totally stupid things being addressed as “violent”. We need someone with common sense to come up with a fair, reasonable definition of “violent”. For example, “hurting people” should be taken into consideration. These “tools” are often used selectively.

    And I have seen some of the aftermath of incarceration:

    Mother’s (and fathers) permanently loosing custody, even parental rights of their children;

    Not being able to get a licence because of fines, court costs, or outrageous child support that can never be caught up;

    Not being able to get a job because you don’t have a license, car or ride to work, or because of criminal history;

    Families loosing everything they have, or having to choose between paying for medicine, utility bills, FOOD- or the telephone bill so that they or an inmates children can have contact.

    And this is often, not always- because of stupid, impulsive decisions.

    I want reform!!! Check out the documentary “One Nation Under Guard”. I think most people don’t have a clue how corrupt the system is. I know, there are some really good people working for DOC, but as in most places, change needs to start at the top. We try to present ourselves as “humane”, but how some people are treated is inexcusable. I am starting to wonder why, if we are not going to give people a second chance, do we even let them out?

    Does Sen. Obenshain have any real interest in these issues? Because, generally, you get what you give and that goes for a society as well. Investments usually pay off.

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