February 25, 2012 |By Joe Lawlor, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-7874
Chiffonda Speller should be in prison right now, for stealing televisions and electronics to support a crack cocaine habit.
Instead, thanks to an alternative sentence that sidestepped prison, the gregarious 37-year-old is now working, married and living drug-free for the first time since she was a teenager.
Her life wasn’t so rosy just three years ago. Her family had disowned her, and she said 2009 was a scary yet pivotal moment in her life.
“Nobody wanted anything to do with me,” said Speller with a wide smile. “They were done with me. They were sick and tired of my mess.”
Prosecutors recommended a 10-year sentence for Speller, who along with her then-boyfriend operated an illicit business re-selling stolen electronics out of their public housing apartment.
“We had gotten to the point where people were placing orders with us. They would call and ask if we had any 20-inch screen televisions,” Speller said.
When they were caught stealing televisions at a big-box appliance store, police found a cache of stolen goods in their apartment, she said.
Speller first heard about Youth Challenge during a prayer group meeting in Norfolk’s city jail three years ago. She applied to the alternative sentencing program based in Newport News, not knowing whether she would be accepted.
“The judge said, ‘I was planning to give you five years today. I don’t know why I’m letting you do this, but something tells me I should give you a chance, that you want to change,’” said Speller, of Hampton.
So instead of five years in prison, she was sent to Youth Challenge, which despite its name is a 12- to 24-month, faith-based treatment program for adult non-violent offenders.
Speller said she now has a relationship with God. Last year she got married and is now finishing a degree at Thomas Nelson Community College.
“I’m a whole new person,” said Speller, who works on the Youth Challenge staff in Newport News.
Studies show that alternative sentencing programs are much more effective than prisons and jail at preventing recidivism, and much less expensive to operate.
So why aren’t such programs used more often?
At nearly 30,000 inmates, Virginia’s prison population has grown by about 5,000 prisoners since the late 1990s, according to Virginia Department of Corrections statistics.
Prison population numbers are, however, finally starting to decline across the country, and there’s a growing acceptance of alternate methods of sentencing for non-violent offenders, experts said.
In 2010, the national prison population declined 0.6 percent, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in December 2011, down to 1.6 million prisoners.
It was the first decline in the national prison population since 1972.
Similarly, Virginia’s prison population dipped 3.9 percent in 2011.
For the past 10 years Virginia has encouraged judges to consider alternative sentencing. And a governor’s task force is studying alternative sentencing strategies.
Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan said the City Farm — a minimum security jail on the banks of the James River where non-violent offenders serve two years or less — could be closed and about half of the city’s jail population could be diverted to alternative programs without public safety being compromised.
Significantly cutting the jail population, closing the City Farm and starting an alternative program would save the city millions, Morgan said.
“We should find a way to not have to incarcerate people,” he said.
Several criminal justice experts agree that a “perfect storm” is brewing for opportunities to expand alternative sentencing.
“The answer is right in front of them,” said Troy Collier, the Youth Challenge director, sitting in an office filled with hand-me-down furniture. Collier said Youth Challenge rehabilitates people and saves money.
Collier said judges like to sentence people to his intensive, “change-the-heart” through faith type program.
Youth Challenge serves more than 150 men and women per year, despite receiving no local government funding.
Across Virginia, about 12,000 convicted criminals enter state prison every year, according to state data. Roughly 2,000 to 3,000 of those would come from the Hampton Roads region, based on population estimates.
Collier said Youth Challenge could expand its services if the local and state governments started realizing how much money they would save by diverting dollars from jails and prisons to alternative programs.
Morgan said he noticed a shift in public perceptions about five or six years ago, when it became apparent that building more prisons was costly and not serving society. “The one way I can get everyone’s attention on this issue is when we start talking about cost,” he said.
“We lock a prostitute up for 90 days and she’s an addict. She gets out and she’s still an addict,” he said. “The money we spent locking her up we just flushed down the drain. We do very little to address the root causes of why people commit crimes.”