Virginia has more than 38,000 prison inmates.i One of every 89 adults is incarcerated.ii
The state’s growth in the imprisonment rate per 100,000 residents was 9th highest of all states from the end of 2000 to June 30, 2009, trailing West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Arkansas and South Dakota.iii Among the factors contributing to the state’s prison growth was the abolition of parole in 1994.iv The imprisonment rate per 100,000 residents in Virginia is nine percent higher than the national average for all states.v In 2008 Virginia ranked 41st in index crimes, 42nd in violent crimes and 40th in property crimes per 100,000 resident population.vi
The annual cost of holding a prisoner in Virginia is $24,667.vii It is estimated that annual corrections costs since 2000 have increased by at least $120 million beyond that expected given the state’s population growth.viii In FY 2008 Virginia taxpayers spent 7.6 percent of the state’s general funds on corrections.ix
Virginia has only 1 in 94 adults is under community supervision compared with the national average of 1 in 45.x Combiningthese two statistics – a high incarceration rate and a low community supervision rate—shows that 52 percent of Virginia’s adult correctional population is behind bars.xi Accordingly, this is the fourth highest rate in the country. Compared to other states, Virginia is using more incarceration and less community supervision. Virginia is spending almost 20 times more per day to manage prison inmates than to supervise offenders in the community.xii
To address these challenges, in December 2009 the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a Virginia organization that supports limited government and free markets, hosted a prison reform dinner with top state legislative leaders to consider ways to reduce recidivism and prison costs. House Courts of Justice Committee chair, Delegate David Albo, the senior Republican in the northern Virginia delegation, spearheaded the dinner. He noted, “We have been looking for a way to save the state money on prison costs without letting criminals out of prison early…The meeting you set up actually offered concrete ideas to actually solve the problem. Now we have a path to solve the problem of offenders who have already served their prison term, but violate probation and then return to prison at huge costs to the taxpayer.”xiii
Delegate Robert Bell sponsored such legislation that was passed and signed into law in 2010. House Bill 927 established an “immediate sanction probation program” for nonviolent offenders.xiv Under this legislation, an offender arrested for a violation of the conditions of his probation would receive an expedited hearing before the court. An affidavit prepared by his probation and parole officer detailing the offense for which he was arrested may be received into evidence without the officer’s testimony and such an offender could serve up to 30 days in jail for a probation offense. This legislation is projected to reduce the costs associated with probationers who return to prison for longer periods due to rules violations, but who did not commit a new crime.
Policymakers and the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, which has in recent years enhanced the use of risk and needs assessments in corrections decisions, are looking to identify additional steps they can take to strengthen the state’s criminal justice policies to improve outcomes for public safety and taxpayers. A December 2009 article by Prison Fellowship Vice President Pat Nolan in the Bacon’s Rebellion, a journal of the Thomas Jefferson Institute, provides many solutions that Virginia lawmakers can consider in this regard.xv