Sunday, September 26, 2004
Expected growth spurt doesn't materialize
One reason is a downturn in crime, which state officials did not take into account when they predicted the prison population would reach 55,000 by next year.
Although some inmates are serving longer terms under Virginia's "truth in sentencing" laws, the state's prison population has not grown as rapidly as was predicted a decade ago.
When the General Assembly voted to abolish parole at a special session 10 years ago this week, critics predicted the new sentencing laws would lead to prison overcrowding so severe that the federal courts would be forced to intervene.
Even then-Gov. George Allen, who scored a major political victory when the General Assembly passed his proposal to abolish parole, criticized lawmakers the following year for not funding all the prisons he wanted. A spending package passed in 1995 would "put the commonwealth on a collision course destined to end in federal court orders requiring Virginia to release dangerous criminals early into our streets and neighborhoods," Allen said at the time.
One reason that has not happened is an unexpected downturn in crime, which state officials did not take into account when they predicted the prison population would reach 55,000 by next year.
While the current count of about 35,000 prisoners represents a 25 percent increase from 1996, the number of state prisoners actually grew faster in the 10 years before parole was abolished. Fed by higher crime rates and a large number of drug offenders during the crack epidemic, the prison population grew by 160 percent from 1986 to 1996, according to the Virginia Sentencing Commission.
The latest predictions are that the inmate population will reach 43,000 by the end of the decade.
Unlike other states that have passed strict sentencing laws, only to rescind them later, Virginia devised a system that appears to be working well, according to a consultant with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan research and consulting group in New York.
"Virginia has emerged as one of, if not the leader nationally, in terms of how to manage this process," said Daniel Wilhelm, director of the institute's state sentencing and corrections program.
One of the keys to the state's success was creating a commission that devises guidelines which judges are asked to follow in sentencing felony defendants. The Virginia Sentencing Commission bases the guidelines on a five-year analysis of sentences, taking into account a number of variables that determine the sentence range.
According to figures presented last week to a legislative committee, judges are following the guidelines in 82 percent of the cases they hear.
"If there was not a judicial embrace of this voluntary system, the system would have collapsed," sentencing commission director Rick Kern told members of the public safety subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee.
On average, felons are serving 91 percent to 93 percent of their sentences. The truth in sentencing laws passed in 1994 require inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their terms, although the portion can be higher based on their behavior behind bars. Under the old system, inmates were generally paroled after serving about a third of their sentences.
Although violent offenders are serving as much as four times as long under the new law, many first-time and nonviolent felons are treated essentially the same as they were previously. In other words, if someone was sentenced to 30 years and paroled after 10 under the old system, he or she would likely receive 12 years and be out by 10 under the new system.
With crime declining steadily over the past decade, and with state legislatures facing budget shortfalls, as many as 30 states have either scrapped or scaled back the tough sentencing laws they passed during the 1980s and 1990s, Wilhelm said.
While Virginia has not made radical changes to its system, the state has implemented a risk assessment model to identify nonviolent offenders who might be suitable for alternatives to prison. Some say the state needs to look for more solutions beyond building prisons, which has drained $500 million from state coffers since parole was abolished.
"Clearly, elected officials from both sides of the political aisle and in states of every type are concluding that the current approach to sentencing, especially as it relates to drug offenders, is incredibly costly and is producing lousy outcomes," Wilhelm said.
Staff writer Michael Sluss
contributed to this report.Unlike other states that have passed strict sentencing laws, only to rescind them later, Virginia devised a system that appears to be working well, according to a consultant with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan research and consulting group in New York.