Marqui Clardy November 2, 2020
I'd like to talk about two very different guys in my housing unit who, in regard to criminal justice reform, may be the perfect examples of why a change in perspective is needed in terms of which types of offenders should be prioritized. The first guy's name is Steve. From all of my interactions with Steve, I take him to be a genuinely good person. He's 32 years old and married with a young daughter. He's not a gang member, doesn't partake in drugs or alcohol, stays out of trouble (and away from troublemakers), and has not incurred any disciplinary infractions or ever been placed in solitary confinement. Religious adherence is very important to him. His social circle consists mainly of other offenders who share his spiritual beliefs. Whenever he's not at a table with them studying their religious doctrines, he's usually somewhere reading or writing his own novels. In fact, he has written 11 novels and published five of them. Nothing about Steve's character or behavior says he's a criminal or a bad person. Before being incarcerated, he had a career working for a restaurant and was studying for his bachelor's degree. He wasn't involved in any criminal activity. The crime for which he's currently incarcerated is his first offense.
The other guy is a former cellmate of mine named Carl. Unlike Steve, I do NOT consider Carl a good person. In the three years I've known him, he has caught several disciplinary infractions and been sent to segregation multiple times for fighting, being caught with drugs, and other reasons. It's clear by his demeanor that he has no qualms about breaking the rules. Carl is also a high ranking member of a notorious gang, and the members of that gang are who he's around all day. Instead of spending his time constructively, he's usually gambling on whatever sports games are on TV or at poker/spades/dice games in the day room. He hasn't enrolled in any rehabilitative programs or vocational classes and is adamant that he doesn't intend to unless the administration forces him to. As far as his education, he didn't graduate from high school, nor has he obtained his GED. In several conversations we had when we were cellmates, he told me he doesn't care about getting a GED because he "can get a job without one." Ironically, he's also told me that he has never in his life had a job, which makes my next statement less shocking: At only 35 years old, this is Carl's FOURTH time being incarcerated - once as a juvenile and three times as an adult. He is a token criminal who has no desire to live a positive, productive lifestyle.
As I've stated, my reason for bringing up Steve and Carl are because together, they are shining examples of one of the biggest fallacies in criminal justice reform efforts which all too often focus exclusively on non-violent offenders - who are perceived as less of a public threat - while excluding violent offenders. A new sentence reduction bill known as HB 5148 has recently passed through the Virginia General Assembly and should become effective in 2022. This bill will implement a four-level system that allows offenders to earn up to 15 days off their sentence for every 30 days they serve. Virginia doesn't offer parole or any other early release mechanism, so the impact of this bill in terms of reducing the state prison population will be monumental. The problem with HB 5148 is that it doesn't apply to all offenders. Only non-violent offenders will be eligible to earn 15 days off their sentences. The current maximum of 4.5 days off for every 30 days served will continue to apply to violent offenders.
Steve, who, throughout his incarceration (as well as prior to it) has shown himself to be the more honest, principled, and law abiding of the two, is ineligible for a sentence reduction under this new bill because he is convicted of malicious wounding, which is a violent offense. The fact that he is a first-time offender whose crime was completely impromptu [a regular night at a bar turned bad when Steve got into a physical altercation with a drunk patron and ended up smashing the guy with a beer bottle] has no bearing. Neither does the fact that if he were to be released, he has a stable home plan since his wife is an active military service member who is able to help him with the financial support he'd need for a successful reentry.
Carl, on the other hand, has proven himself to be the more knavish, antisocial, and criminally inclined of the two. Yet, despite his disregard for both the law and his own personal rehabilitation / growth, and his history of showing that when given the choice to do right or wrong, he is prone to choosing wrong, he'll be eligible for early release under this new bill since he is classified as a nonviolent offender. [He is incarcerated for possession of a firearm and possession / distribution of cocaine]. Never mind that he's a habitual offender or the fact that he will be released to the same economically impoverished environment and unstable conditions as the last three times he was released from custody. Being classified as a non-violent offender is all that matters.
Anyone who has been incarcerated understands how illogical this nearly ubiquitous practice of focusing criminal justice reform efforts solely on nonviolent offenders is. There are just as many non-violent offenders who have a history of violence both before and throughout their incarceration as there are violent offenders who have NO history of violence prior to or throughout their incarceration. The type of person you are and the type of crime for which you are incarcerated are often mutually exclusive; often enough that prioritizing one's classification as violent or nonviolent over all the other circumstances that are more indicative of their character is socially irresponsible in determining which offenders should and shouldn't be released back into the public. Criminal justice reform advocates should be cognizant of the thousands of "Carls" they are unknowingly fighting for, and the "Steves" they neglect, based on this one classification. Yes, it is an important factor. But should it be THE determining factor? Clearly not.