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Budget Matters: A Look at Police Spending In Virginia Localities

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From the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis:

by Phil Hernandez, Laura Goren, and Kathy Mendes

Racial injustice and unequal outcomes permeate our criminal justice system. A long history of discriminatory laws and practices—ranging from the so-called “Black Codes” that emerged in the Reconstruction era, to Jim Crow laws, to the more recent “broken windows” policing strategies and “three strikes” laws—means that race has always been a major factor at every stage of the criminal justice system.

Today, Black Americans continue to experience more frequent stops, searches, and arrests by police, while also facing higher rates of pre-trial detention. These stark differences in outcomes are not warranted by crime statistics; rather, they reflect a systemic racial bias. For example: while drug use rates are similar for Black and white people, police are significantly more likely to arrest Black Virginians for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. In another example: even when the same crime has been committed, Black people regularly receive longer sentences — on average, nearly 20% longer — than similarly situated white individuals.

Infographic showing the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on Black people in Virginia, and showing the increase in general fund spending on state police in Virginia since fiscal year 2011

As conversations about criminal justice reform continue, it is important for Virginia’s policy makers to understand budget choices that helped to fund the system we have today. Budgets, after all, mirror our values. To build on our recent research related to statewide spending on policing, the interactive table below summarizes per capita spending on law enforcement in Virginia’s localities.