Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Richardson Case Another Sad Reminder of Need for West Virginia to Reinstate the Death Penalty, Make Other Criminal Justice Improvements

Over the last few days, I've been writing about the case of Raymond Richardson, an accused murderer who is no stranger to the criminal justice system. Richardson was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for a brutal kidnapping of a former girlfriend in 1999. Subsequently, the state Supreme Court reduced his sentence to 10 years and that was further reduced to 5 years due to Richardson's good behavior while in prison, as mandated by West Virginia Code 28-5-27.

West Virginia may have the good fortune of having one of the nation's lowest crime rates, but this does not negate the need for the adoption of adequate laws for deterring, detecting, and punishing criminals who refuse to abide by the laws of a civilized society. Some on the left--most prominently the Charleston Gazette--bemoan the fact our prison population continues to grow rapidly while crime is stable. That the stability of crime results from the criminals being in prison apparently has not crossed their minds.

The issue of criminal justice is one that goes directly to the heart of the purpose of government. In this case, conservatives like myself hold that the first duty of any government is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of its people. To this end, we maintain a strong military to deter and, when necessary, combat our foreign enemies and the police and criminal justice system for domestic criminals. Nothing government does is more important.

With respect to crime, the goal of any criminal justice policy must be to first deter and prevent crime, but then apprehend and punish criminals for the crimes that are committed. In some cases, an orientation toward deterrence will be effective, such as our traffic laws and regulatory statutes. In others, however, we recognize that people will commit vile acts upon others and must be punished--including removal from the society whose laws the criminal will not obey via a prison sentence.

There are several serious shortfalls in West Virginia's criminal justice system the Legislature must fix:

  1. West Virginia must cease being one of only 12 states that do not have the death penalty for the most serious murders. To ensure the cost of prosecuting capital cases does not impose an undue burden on the counties, the state should assume the full cost of prosecuting capital cases & paying for the defense of those with public defenders or court-appointed lawyers in those cases in which the death penalty is sought.
  2. We must strengthen our laws regarding sexual predators and adopt mandatory prison sentences for all violent felonies. Child molesters routinely get probation or short jail or prison sentences and do not suffer the revocation of probation and required service of the prison sentence when probation is violated.
  3. We must reform our very liberal "good time" credit system (WV Code 28-5-27) that lets all convicts serving a sentence of less than life in prison automatically reduce his or her sentence by 50% simply for behaving well in prison. Convicts should be allowed a 15% reduction to maintain an incentive for good behavior behind bars but not more.
  4. We must strengthen our drug laws. Under current law, there are no mandatory sentences for any level of drug dealers and the maximum penalty for the most serious drug offense is 15 years, which is never really served thanks to indeterminate sentencing, 50% good time credits, and parole eligibility occurring after the minimum portion of the sentence--1 year in all felony drug cases--is served. The state should not shrug its responsibility to protect the people of West Virginia from the scourge of illegal drugs, assuming the feds will assume jurisdiction over the more serious cases. Our state has become a haven for drug dealers, who have brought many violent crimes in their wake. Compare West Virginia's principal drug laws (60A-4-401, 60A-4-406, and 60A-4-409) to Virginia's (18.2-248, 18.2-248.01, and 18.2-248.1). Also note while West Virginia adopted the original Uniform Controlled Substances Act in 1970, it never adopted the 1994 Uniform Controlled Substances Act.
  5. Our Three Strikes law (61-11-18), one of the nation's oldest, must be reformed to include a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for second-time felons, 25 years to life for third-time felons, mandatory life without parole for repeat violent felons (kidnappers, rapists, child molesters, robbers, arsonists, etc.), and mandatory application of this law in all cases. The present law includes only a minor sentence enhancement for second-time felons, life with the possibility of parole after 15 years for third-time felons, and mandatory life without parole only for a convicted murderer or first-degree sexual assault offender who has been previously convicted of murder or first-degree sexual assault.
  6. We should consider a move toward truth-in-sentencing. A sentence imposed by a judge should bear a greater relationship with the actual time served than under our current system. In most cases, an indeterminate sentence (i.e, 1-10 years) is imposed for a crime. In these cases, parole eligibility occurs after the minimum portion of the sentence has been served. In those few cases when a determinate sentence is imposed, parole eligibility generally occurs after serving 25% of the sentence. More offenses should require determinate sentences and parole eligibility should occur after a greater period, such as 50%. Another possibility might also involve eliminating parole for some or all classes of felonies, leaving the 15% good time credits (as proposed above) as the only deviation from a sentence imposed.
  7. The penalties for attempted felonies and accessories after the fact to felonies must be increased. Accessory after the fact is a misdemeanor even in murder cases. The maximum penalty for a failed attempt to commit first-degree murder is 15 years (which is automatically reduced by 50% just for good behavior in prison).
  8. The Legislature must make a priority of building new prisons. Even without any of the new laws I have proposed, the Division of Corrections estimates the state will need up to 10,000 new prison cells. When Virginia abolished parole, raised sentences for violent crimes, and dramatically strengthened their drug laws, they engaged in a massive prison construction program to house the estimated inmate population. Virginia was pleasantly surprised a few years after these reforms to find the prison population had not grown nearly as fast as expected. The convicts who were stuck in the revolving door were not released to reoffend and some potential criminals were deterred by the longer prison sentences.
  9. As a more expedient remedy to our lack of prison space pending the construction of new facilities, we must repeal the clause in the state constitution forbidding the out of state incarceration of inmates. Article III, Section 5 should be excised of the Banishment Clause. This will take a 2/3 vote of both houses of the Legislature and voter approval, but I believe this can be easily done.