Pubdate: Tue, 21 Jan 2003
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2003 Richmond Newspapers Inc.
Author: Frank Green


Inmates Are Released, Then Reimprisoned

Roughly 10 percent of Virginia's prison population are criminals who were 
released but who committed what authorities call "technical" violations of 
their probation or post-prison release rules.

That's an estimated 3,000 inmates - enough to fill several state prisons - 
who were initially sent to prison for crimes that occurred after the 
sentencing reforms of 1995. They are reimprisoned, on average, for 22 
months at a cost of nearly $21,000 per prisoner a year.

Technical violations of release rules may still involve criminal conduct - 
usually drug use detected by a test - but they are not the result of a new 
criminal conviction.

According to Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of 
Corrections, typical reasons for such violations are substance abuse, 
failure to attend required treatment programs, absconding and failure to 
follow required instructions.

The number of such violators entering Virginia prisons is climbing. In 
1997, there were about 400, while in 2001, there were about 1,500. In 
addition, in 2001, there were 255 technical parole violators returned to 

"It clearly is a dramatic number, and it represents a major share of the 
people we're housing in prison," said Rick Kern, director of the Virginia 
Criminal Sentencing Commission.

This type of inmate has become an issue that Virginia and other states are 
beginning to grapple with in light of tight state budgets, he said.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner's proposed budget would have the commission 
develop sentencing guidelines for judges handling such offenders in the 
hope many could be diverted into punishment and treatment programs that are 
much less expensive than prison.

The overriding concern of such guidelines, however, would be the 
maintenance of public safety, presumably making it difficult for violent 
offenders to qualify.

Barry Green, of the secretary of public safety's office, said one of the 
reasons behind the effort is that even though crime was down and arrests 
were not up, prison admissions were still going up. "A lot of that had to 
do with probation violators," he said.

Virginia ended parole for crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 1995. 
Inmates who committed crimes before that date are paroled from prison. 
Probation is when a judge suspends all or some of a prison sentence 
provided the criminal abides by the probation rules.

In addition, prison inmates released with convictions for crimes that 
occurred after Jan. 1, 1995, are on post-release supervision, which also 
has rules which can be violated.

The Parole Board determines whether a parole violator is reimprisoned, 
while a judge determines whether a probationer or someone on post-release 
will be sent to prison.

Virginia is not the only state with the problem.

In California, for example, 17 percent of that state's 160,000 inmates are 
technical parole violators, according to the California Department of 
Corrections. The average annual cost of an inmate there is $26,000.

Most parolees there who violate drug rules are now sent for treatment 
instead of back to prison.

Kern said the most common reason for a technical violation is testing 
positive for drug use, often marijuana. Those inmates might be the best 
candidates for programs that are alternatives to locking them up.

Part of the issue is that judges may get upset with probationers who may 
not be dangerous but who have not used their freedom to straighten out 
their lives, Kern said.

The length of time these inmates are serving has increased from about one 
year, before the ending of parole in 1995, to nearly two years now.

One of the contributing factors has been the Virginia Department of 
Corrections' "Operation Consequences" program.

Under the program, the department does surprise drug testing on parolees 
and probationers in different parts of the state. Since 1996, it has led to 
1,166 arrests, according to the department. Marijuana and cocaine are the 
drugs most often detected.
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