The incarceration rate in Virginia and around the country has fallen from 1,000 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 2008 to 830 prisoners per 100,000 adults today. This has been largely accomplished by local authorities adopting a more proactive approach and focusing on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. However, more than 2 million people still remain incarcerated in state detention facilities, and the recently passed FIRST STEP Act does not offer them any relief.
Zealous prosecutors and tough-on-crime judges often claim that harsh custodial sentences provide a strong deterrent and prevent crime, but studies show that they actually increase crime and make recidivism more likely. This is because prisoners released after years behind bars find it difficult to adjust to society and often turn to the kind of behavior that got them into trouble in the first place. Civil rights advocates say that sophisticated algorithms capable of predicting future behavior reduce the prison population, save taxpayers money and make communities safer.
Cities like New York provide an example to lawmakers, community leaders and police departments around the country. In New York, programs provided by the courts, prosecutors and nonprofit organizations have helped to reduce the number of people incarcerated from about 21,000 to less than 8,200 since 1991. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which encourages individuals to think and not react when faced with conflict, is particularly effective and has reduced recidivism rates by as much as 50 percent.
Experienced criminal defense attorneys might cite research highlighting the benefits of a more pragmatic sentencing approach during plea discussions. They may also encourage leniency by citing mitigating factors such as genuine regret, a clean record, supportive family members and a steady job. When prosecutors are not receptive to these arguments and a negotiated plea agreement cannot be reached, defense attorneys may advocate fiercely on behalf of their clients before a jury.