- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Depending on how one defines a “nonviolent” offender, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine could stand guilty of trying to provide a get-out-of-jail 90 days early card to career criminals, including drug dealers, pornographers, and people who burn crosses or paint swastikas, manufacture methamphetamine with children present, or commit or aid and abet acts of terrorism. Mr. Kaine, with support from the editorial page of The Washington Post, has announced plans to allow prison officials to release certain criminals up to 90 days before the end of their sentences (currently, they can shorten sentences up to 30 days.). Mr. Kaine and legislative allies claim that by releasing approximately 3,000 to 5,000 offenders early, their legislation will save taxpayers money without compromising public safety. This assertion is very much open to question.

The budgetary savings from early release are estimated at $5 million to $10 million through next year - a very modest amount of money considering that the commonwealth is attempting to balance a two-year, $77 billion budget. The idea might nonetheless make sense if it were really true that the inmates being released were in fact first-time “nonviolent” offenders of things like minor drug offenses or burglary. But, contrary to popular myth, Virginia courts are not in the habit of locking up first offenders for possessing small amounts of marijuana: Usually the people convicted of such crimes also have extensive criminal histories. “A nonviolent offense wouldn’t result in a prison sentence if that was all they had done,” said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, Fairfax Republican, a member of the Courts of Justice Committee. Mr. Cuccinelli said he was troubled by the premise that burglary is a minor crime because a weapon was not used, pointing out that there is always a risk of violence - particularly if burglars are confronted by homeowners. “I take no comfort in the fact that someone is ‘only a burglar,’ ” he told The Washington Times, adding that corrections and public safety should be the last place that politicians look to cut the budget in an effort to find another $5 million to $10 million.

If anything, Mr. Cuccinelli could be understating the danger posed by the inmates that the governor wants to release. Delegate Todd Gilbert, Page County Republican and a career prosecutor, went through Mr. Kaine’s proposal line by line and provided The Washington Times with a list of categories of inmates eligible for early release under the governor’s plan. In addition to persons convicted of cross-burning and placing swastikas on property in an effort to intimidate, they include persons incarcerated for such crimes as: stalking; assault and battery against a family member; threatening the governor or his immediate family; escaping from jail; abusing and neglecting children; DUI manslaughter; and allowing a child to be present during manufacture of methamphetamine.

Mr.Gilbert, a member of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, said he was also troubled by plans announced Jan. 26 by state corrections officials to use home electronic monitoring to keep track of prisoners. He said that this could endanger public safety since “many of the felons who will be released under this plan to serve out their sentences in the relative comfort of their homes are … drug dealers or have extensive criminal records. This bill will destroy truth in sentencing by ensuring that thousands of drug dealers will move from their prison cells to their easy chairs.”

If Mr. Cuccinelli and Mr. Gilbert are correct, Mr. Kaine’s efforts to release “nonviolent” offenders might not save any money at all - particularly if drug dealers, burglars and the like who get out of prison early commit additional crimes. We know that Mr. Kaine, who just became chairman of the Democratic National Committee and is in the final year of his governorship, cannot possibly want this to be part of his legacy. And we can’t imagine that the national Democratic Party, no matter how “progressive” its leadership fancies itself, could possibly want to be saddled with a chairman whose idea of “fiscal responsibility” is flinging open the prison gates.

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