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Study: VA justice system is failing. Reforms called for

The news about Virginia's justice system is not good, at least not in the eyes of one Washington-based think tank. The Justice Policy Institute says the system being employed in the commonwealth costs too much, isn't as effective as it might be and is vastly unfair to African-American defendants.

The recently-released findings don't come as any big surprise to those familiar with the system. But they are sparking new cries for reform from some quarters. One Baptist pastor says the approach to take is a complete overhaul. 

If the institute's findings and recommendations are to be trusted, one of the first things officials might want to consider is scaling back on aggressive drug enforcement. The study makes particular note of the fact that from 2002 to 2011, the rate of arrests for all crimes declined by nearly 10 percent. However, from 2001 to 2012, arrests for alleged drug crimes rose 51 percent.

According to the report, the state spent close to $95 million on drug arrests just in 2011. And in 2012, arrests related to marijuana accounted for nearly two-thirds of arrests for drugs.

But, perhaps more disconcerting than those numbers are the study's observations related to race. It says that drug use and trafficking occurs at about the same rate among whites and blacks, and that blacks constitute about 20 percent of the state's population. Yet, 44 percent of those incarcerated for drugs are black.

The institute says making simple updates in outdated state laws would be a good place to start on reforms. One recommendation suggests raising the amount that triggers a grand larceny charge from the current $200 to $600. One proponent says the move would reduce the number of people facing the harsh penalties that can accompany a felony conviction, and save the state nearly $2 million in just the first year.

The question many seem to be asking now is whether elected officials will have the political will to act.

Source: Roanoke.com, "Report blasts Virginia’s justice system," Frank Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nov 14, 2013

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