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Virginia and its A.G.: 'Les Mis'-style punishers


Date published: 1/11/2013

On Dec. 28, The Free Lance-Star reported that "Just before Thanksgiving, after four years of incarceration, an innocent Hampton man was finally freed from prison." However, Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli found that the "21-day rule" prevented Johnathan Montgomery's release even though the court vacated his convictions.

It astonishes me how the attorney general's action resembles those of Javert, the policeman in "Les Miserables," the novel by Victor Hugo and movie now playing in Fredericksburg. No forgiveness, no chance to re-enter society.

Indeed, Virginia's treatment of prisoners mirrors 19th-century France. Cruelty toward prisoners and ex-prisoners is institutionalized, and main character Jean Valjean receives a five-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving son.

Virginia in 2012--like France in 1815--incarcerates people for long periods of time for small offenses, though today's annual per prisoner costs exceeds $35,000. Every year the legislature enacts even more such laws. A no-parole system removes an incentive to work toward improvement while incarcerated. Ex-felons are permanently disenfranchised, leaving 350,000 mostly nonviolent ex-prisoners without voting rights.

Our fictional character, Valjean, carried papers that identified him as an ex-prisoner, removing his ability to get work, food, or a place to sleep.

Today, without a driver's license, voting privileges, and other necessary documents, Virginia's ex-prisoners have limited employment and housing prospects thereby hindering successful re-entry into society.

As in France, Virginia society suffers because, as a very great religious leader said, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."

Neither society appears to forgive.

Linda Perry Berkoff

Stafford