Sixteen years after banning parole, Virginia has defied the nation’s unshakably high recidivism level, returning a lower rate of prisoners to incarceration than many other states, according to the first state-by-state comparison of recidivism.
Although the state’s recidivism levels have edged up slightly since 2000, Virginia’s 28.3 percent recidivism rate for prisoners in the three years after their release in 2004 is well below the nation’s 43.3 percent rate during the same period, according to the Pew Center on the States study.
Maryland, whose recidivism record-keeping has come under scrutiny by state budget analysts, was unable to provide statistics in the form researchers requested and is one of several states not included in the study. However, Maryland officials said the 2004 recidivism rate was 48.5, slightly higher than the national rate.
The Pew study comes as states battle skyrocketing prison costs amid steep budget shortfalls. Corrections spending by states tops $50 billion a year and is the second-fastest-growing budget expense, behind Medicaid, according to Pew.
Virginia has cut prison spending and closed 10 corrections centers since 2009.
How Virginia has achieved lower-than-average recidivism rates is difficult to pin down, experts said. One likely factor, though, is lack of parole.
The state did away with parole in 1995 after get-tough-on-crime initiatives by then-Gov. George Allen (R). Prisoners are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. By keeping prisoners behind bars longer, the effect is to “age them out of their crime-prone years,” said Brian Ostrom, a researcher for the National Center for State Courts who has extensively studied Virginia’s prison system.
Virginia’s released prisoners have been getting older. According to state statistics, more than half those released in the early 1990s were younger than 30, a group reincarcerated at the highest levels. By fiscal 2006, a third of those released were younger than 30, and the percentage of prisoners 40 to 49 who had been released tripled.
Another demographic shift: Female prisoners, who are less likely to return to prison than males, have made up a greater portion of those released in recent years.
Also helping Virginia, experts and state officials said, are innovative programs that consider a criminal’s recidivism likelihood not just during incarceration, when potential services can be offered, but also at sentencing. Those offenders deemed likely to repeat are not offered diversionary programs while those who are deemed a risk face stiff time.
“Virginia was one of the first states to do this, to adopt risk assessments to help lower recidivism,” said University of Virginia law Professor John Monahan.
Despite successes, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has said that the recidivism rate is still too high for his liking and that Virginia must do more to help offenders be successful upon release. “Reduction in recidivism means fewer victims and less prison costs,” he said in his State of the State address in January. “America is a nation of second chances and those leaving prison should have the opportunity to change.”
McDonnell has appointed a state council to cut recidivism with “collaborative reentry strategies” and has moved to help released prisoners more easily regain voting rights.
Meanwhile, in Maryland, corrections officials said they were working diligently, with increasingly limited resources, to lower recidivism. They said recidivism had decreased by nearly 3 percent for prisoners released in 1999 vs. in 2004.
But a state budget analysis has questioned the Maryland Parole Commission’s record-keeping, saying the commission was unable to accurately measure aspects of recidivism. The department’s spokesman, Rick Binetti, strongly disputed the analysis and said “we stand firmly behind our” numbers.
The department is instituting a new offender case management system.