McAuliffe’s con­ser­va­tive crim­i­nal-jus­tice re­forms


Many Vir­gini­ans thought Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) for­got the Gen­eral As­sem­bly ex­isted af­ter his uni­lat­eral de­cree re­gard­ing felon vot­ing rights last year. How­ever, we have rea­son for en­cour­age­ment this year as McAuliffe an­nounced sev­eral re­forms he wants to ac­com­plish in his fi­nal year in of­fice. Bet­ter late than never.

Though these pro­pos­als will likely be lauded on the left as some sort of pro­gres­sive dream, the re­al­ity is that con­ser­va­tives in red states have been pro­duc­ing suc­cess­ful re­sults in crim­i­nal-jus­tice re­form for many years. While lib­er­als try to talk about amor­phous con­cepts such as “so­cial jus­tice,” con­ser­va­tives have stuck to the facts and fo­cused on data-driven so­lu­tions that en­hance pub­lic safety.

In fact, some of McAuliffe’s lat­est pro­pos­als seem to be com­ing straight out of the heart of Texas. This month, he called for a higher thresh­old for felony theft.

Vir­ginia is tied with New Jersey for the low­est felony theft thresh­old at $200. That means if some­one steals an item worth more than $200, the crime be­comes grand lar­ceny, a felony, rather than a mis­de­meanor, and that in­di­vid­ual can face up to 20 years of im­pris­on­ment.

Re­search from the Pew Pub­lic Safety Per­for­mance Project shows that a ma­jor­ity of states have in­creased their theft thresh­old since 2001. Of the 23 states an­a­lyzed by Pew that made the change be­tween 2001 and 2011, the lar­ceny and prop­erty crime rates de­creased in 19 states. On the whole, the states that in­creased the theft thresh­old had greater de­creases in prop­erty crime and lar­ceny rates than the states that did not in­crease the thresh­old.

This is where the Lone Star State truly shines. Texas and Wis­con­sin have the high­est thresh­old, at $2,500, more than 10 times the amount in the com­mon­wealth. Texas en­joys its low­est over­all crime rate since 1967.

There are sev­eral good rea­sons to in­crease the out­ra­geously out-of-date thresh­old in Vir­ginia. There is the log­i­cal rea­son: Over time, as we all know, the value of a dol­lar de­creases. The pur­chas­ing power of $200 when the thresh­old was set in 1980 is greater than $500 to­day.

Main­tain­ing such a low thresh­old will pull low-risk in­di­vid­u­als into the crim­i­nal sys­tem with a felony. We should be fo­cus­ing our re­sources on more se­ri­ous of­fend­ers. This is es­pe­cially a prob­lem for ju­ve­niles. Prison Fel­low­ship, Right on Crime and the Thomas Jef­fer­son In­sti­tute, in a re­port pub­lished in 2015, ex­plained that be­cause the thresh­old is so low, there is po­ten­tial for non­vi­o­lent youths to be sen­tenced to ju­ve­nile cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties, a wildly ex­pen­sive sys­tem ($150,000 per child) that leads ju­ve­niles down the path to more crime.

An­other McAuliffe pro­posal has been ripped from the head­lines and pol­icy pa­pers in Texas. I agree with the gov­er­nor that it is truly out­ra­geous for our govern­ment to sus­pend a ci­ti­zen’s driver’s li­cense for not pay­ing fines and fees, akin to the Texas pro­gram op­posed by con­ser­va­tives. This has be­come govern­ment’s ver­sion of squeez­ing blood from a turnip, and it is a fight in which con­ser­va­tives in Vir­ginia can work to limit govern­ment abuse.

The com­mon­wealth still has a long way to go when it comes to re­form­ing our crim­i­nal-jus­tice sys­tem, but it will be con­ser­va­tive poli­cies that get us to a bet­ter place. Con­ser­va­tives in many red states have an in­cred­i­ble track record of re­form, in­clud­ing dis­cov­ery, ju­ve­nile jus­tice and crim­i­nal-in­tent re­forms. Even lib­er­als such as McAuliffe have been un­able to ig­nore this suc­cess.

Though McAuliffe may have coopted the Texas model for his own pur­poses, it will be up to Vir­ginia con­ser­va­tives in the Gen­eral As­sem­bly and else­where to lead the way on crim­i­nal-jus­tice re­form in this ses­sion and be­yond.

Con­ser­va­tives in red states have been pro­duc­ing suc­cess­ful re­sults in crim­i­nal-jus­tice re­form for many years.

The writer, a for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral of Vir­ginia, is a sig­na­tory to the Right on Crime State­ment of Prin­ci­ples.

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