OPINION — There are no black and white answers

Published 5:40 pm Thursday, May 27, 2021

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Delegate Tommy Wright would like us to believe criminal justice is all black or white. If you commit a crime, you should go to prison and serve your entire sentence, no matter the circumstances.

That’s the argument Wright made in last Wednesday’s Kenbridge-Victoria Dispatch when he derided the Democrat candidates for governor for supporting the return of parole to Virginia.

Perhaps it’s because there’s at least two prisons serving as a major employer in his district, or perhaps it’s just the Republican party line to be tough on crime unless you storm the U.S. Capitol. But Wright’s stance disregards the fact that people can change. It also disregards the fact that sometimes the justice system gets things wrong.

Take the case of Rev. Maury Davis for instance. The evangelist transformed a church in suburban Nashville from an average church with an attendance of just over 300 to a mega church with a 3,200-seat sanctuary and an average of 4,000 worshippers each weekend. The thing is — Davis is a confessed killer. He killed a 54-year-old Sunday school teacher when he was 18. He blames the event on insanity, drugs and the devil. He was convicted on manslaughter charges.

Davis had a jailhouse conversion and began preaching about Jesus to other prisoners. He was released after eight years of his sentence reportedly due to a combination of overcrowding and good behavior. Should Davis have remained in jail for his full 20-year sentence instead of leaving jail and beginning a ministry with a testimony that has brought many souls to Christ? Apparently Delegate Wright believes he should have remained in prison. Wright made his position clear that he doesn’t want killers released from prison.

In 1995, 20-year-old Zenas Barnes and a friend pretended to have concealed weapons and robbed three fast food restaurants in Norfolk. According to an article in The New York Times, his lawyer, whose law license has since been revoked, negotiated a plea deal for Barnes of 150 years in state prison. Barnes did not realize Virginia had recently abolished parole and 150 years meant just that.  Barnes remains in a Waverly prison today, 25 years later, with 125 years left to serve. He essentially received a life sentence for three robberies.

Barnes received some very bad legal advice, the justice system has failed him, and he is paying for it with his life. But Delegate Wright must believe he should remain in prison with no opportunity for parole.

Wright clearly advocates for a judicial system based on retribution instead of rehabilitation. Retribution comes with a price tag. A 2018 study showed the average cost of housing a prisoner in Virginia is $87.20 per day. That’s $31,828 per year, per prisoner. In 2016, a report showed one in three Americans of working age had a criminal record. The rate of spending on prisons in the U.S. has grown at three times the rate of spending on schools in the past 33 years. Virginia spends less than $10,000 per student but more than $20,000 per inmate.

The fiscally conservative position for Wright and other Republicans is to rehabilitate criminals as quickly as possible and return them to society. To do this, we need to greatly increase the focus on drug and alcohol addiction treatment and mental health programs.

There are no black and white issues in the criminal justice system. These are human beings with human problems. They have a chance at redemption and a need for a second chance.

Slamming the door of the jail cell and throwing away the key is the easy solution. Real solutions are much more difficult.

Roger Watson is editor of The Kenbridge-Victoria Dispatch and Farmville Newsmedia LLC. His email address is Roger.Watson@KVDispatch.com.