Pubdate: Mon, 01 Mar 2004
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA)
Copyright: 2004 Richmond Newspapers Inc.
Author: Frank Green


State Senate Wants Two; House, Warner Are Proposing One

Just three years ago, Virginia's prison system had so many empty cells
it rented more than 3,000 beds to other states and the District of

While other states scrambled to squeeze burgeoning inmate populations
into inadequate prison systems, Virginia had constructed too much
prison space in anticipation of a booming inmate population that did
not materialize.

As a result, in fiscal year 2001, Virginia's prisons collected $78
million housing 3,380 out-of-state inmates - more than one in 10
inmates in Virginia prisons weren't Virginia convicts.

Of the $78 million in income, $56.7 million was used for inmate
expenses. The remaining $21.3 million went to the state's general fund.

Things have turned around quickly.

Virginia now not only will fill most of its cells with Virginia
inmates, it wants to add more. In its proposal for the 2004-06 state
budget, the Virginia Senate would sell nearly $164 million in revenue
bonds to build two medium-security prisons. An additional $54 million
would be used to expand the Deerfield and St. Brides correctional centers.

The prisons, which would be built in Tazewell and Pittsylvania
counties, would house a total of 2,048 inmates; the Deerfield work
would add 600 beds; St. Brides, 800 beds.

The House of Delegates' smaller budget plan, mirroring a proposal from
Gov. Mark R. Warner, calls for only one new prison.

Like other differing aspects of the House and Senate ver-sions of the
state budget, the choice of how many new prisons will be ironed out
among senior negotiators.

"The real concern we have is that the crime and arrest rates have been
dropping nine of the last 10 years, but every year the prison
population grows," said Barry Green, of the secretary of public
safety's office.

The end of parole and other sentencing changes in 1995 has meant
longer prison sentences. But a large and growing part of the problem
are former inmates returning to prison who have not committed new
crimes, but who have violated probation rules.

Green said efforts are being made to cut down on the number of
"technical" probation violators being returned to prison.

A so-called technical violator is a former prisoner who does not
comply with all probation rules - such as not attending treatment
programs or moving without notifying authorities.

"They're the least threat to public safety," Green said. "They're not
committing new crimes . . . " About 10 percent of the state's 31,800
inmates are such violators. They serve an average of 22 months, Green

Richard P. Kern, director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing
Commission, said it is believed there is an increasing number of
technical violators because inmates being released from prison now are
being released on probation rather than parole.

Those who violated parole rules were dealt with by the parole board,
but those who violate court-ordered probation are appearing before the
same judges who sentenced them and some of the judges are reacting at
seeing the violator again, Kern said.

Parole was a set amount of time an inmate had to behave himself or be
sent back to prison to serve more time. Probation is a period set by a
judge for an offender to behave or be sent back to prison to serve
part or all of a suspended sentence.

There was a surge in the number of technical violators returned to
prison between 2000 and 2002, from about 1,000 to more than 1,500, he

"I think every state in the country has recognized this is a growing
problem. Not just states that have abolished parole. It's a driving
force on the prison populations everywhere," Kern said.

Kern said the state is looking at developing guidelines for judges to
use in sentencing such violators and will try to determine which of
the offenders are good candidates for alternatives to prison.

Keith DeBlasio, a former prisoner who is now an inmate advocate,
decried the incarceration of technical violators.

"We've gone from incarcerating people for public safety concerns and
the need to protect society to incarcerating people just to make
political platforms look good and, unfortunately, that's detrimental
to everybody," DeBlasio said.

"We're not being too smart on the way we're doing this."

Meanwhile, Green said that the last of the out-of-state inmates will
be leaving in coming months, helping to create room for about 1,100
Virginia inmates who are currently being held in local jails instead
of state prisons.

Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections,
said Connecticut officials have been notified that Virginia's contract
to house 500 of its inmates will end Oct. 22, a year earlier than had
been anticipated.

Virginia still has a handful of inmates from other states or
possessions: 58 from Vermont; 3 from Hawaii and 18 from the U.S.
Virgin Islands.

While Virginia is in need of medium-security beds, one of the state's
two, relatively new, so-called "supermaximum" security prisons, Red
Onion State Prison, is holding only 720 inmates, though it can handle
more than 1,100.

Critics alleged that the state did not need two such prisons to hold
the system's "worst of the worst" when the two were proposed in the
1990s. In 2002, the department of corrections downgraded the security
level of inmates at the Wallens Ridge State Prison. The facility now
holds 1,130 inmates.
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