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Posted at 12:46 PM ET, 06/01/2011

The road to an empty prison


News that Virginia is spending $700,000 a year to maintain a new but empty prison in Grayson County built at a cost of $105 million should be attracting the attention of budget cutters in the office of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

The prison is one of 11 that have been shut down in the last few years because of a lack of prisoners. For whatever reason -- the bad economy, demographic shifts or better policing -- violent crime is down 5.5 percent nationally in the past year. In Richmond, once the nation’s homicide capital per capita, crime is down 6.2 percent.

So how did Virginians get stuck with so many unneeded prisons anyway?

One place to look is George Allen, the former governor and senator who is now running for his old Senate seat.

Back in 1993, Allen, a Republican, was running for governor behind Attorney General. Mary Sue Terry. So, Allen exploited what was seen as a very big issue back then -- crime. Allen pressed the idea of making Virginia a tough-on-crime state, and he promised to end parole. And that’s what he did after he won the election. Plus, he led Virginia on a big prison expansion to handle the state’s fast-expanding prison population.

Although the Grayson prison was built after Allen had moved on to the U.S. Senate, it is still part of his legacy.

And here’s where the Republican-Democratic views flip. It was Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine who proposed cutting back on unneeded prisons to help balance the state’s budget. Cutting funding is supposed to be a GOP specialty.

Unfortunately, in the case of Grayson County’s facility, the cut came with a $700,000-plus a year maintenance price tag. It is unclear what the best solution might be. Virginia could import prisoners from other states and try to house them at a profit. But other states are seeing crime reductions, too, and might be similarly short of prisoners.

The people who are stuck are those in Grayson County, which is in high-unemployment Southwest Virginia. Some 300 to 350 jobs were supposed to have been created. Maybe McDonnell, the “jobs” governor, can figure out what to tell them.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By  |  12:46 PM ET, 06/01/2011

 
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