By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
RICHMOND -- Leaders in the Virginia Senate are drawing up plans to overhaul the state's criminal sentencing policies so that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of inmates can be released from prison early, a politically risky move aimed at saving tens of millions of dollars.
Under the proposal being drafted by Senate leaders from both parties, Virginia would expand its use of home monitoring and make it easier for nonviolent offenders to be released after they complete drug treatment programs.
The state would then close one or two prisons, which would free up at least $50 million to help address a $3 billion budget shortfall.
The Senate plan, which is expected to be finalized this week, expands Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's earlier cost-cutting proposal to allow some prison officials to release nonviolent inmates 90 days before the end of their sentences.
Senate leaders are considering adopting Kaine's program but clarifying who would be eligible for early release.
"In talking to my constituents, they are not interested in spending $25,000 a year to incarcerate these people when we are talking about cutting higher education, public education and health care," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax).
In an interview Monday, Kaine (D) said he supports the Senate's efforts.
"It's a wise way to prevent jail overcrowding while saving some money while we are doing it," said Kaine, although he cautioned that "there are still a lot of details" to be worked out.
The Senate proposal will probably trigger a statewide debate about how far Virginia should go in cutting costs associated with housing 30,000 inmates. Even before the Senate plan is completed, House Republicans are saying they may try to derail it, setting up a clash that could hamper efforts to reach a budget agreement before the session ends Feb. 28.
"This is going to be a real showdown on philosophy," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "They want to release drug dealers, and none of us are willing to release drug dealers."
Senate leaders say the budget shortfall is forcing them to look for savings within the state's prison system.
Virginia operates 41 correctional facilities. The typical facility has 1,024 beds and costs $25 million annually to operate. In December, Kaine proposed that four prisons be closed as part of ongoing budget cuts. Howell said the Senate would like to add to that list.
"We are trying to look at every option," said Sen. Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico). "It will still be incarceration, but maybe in a different way."
Many states are confronting a sharp decline in revenue, including California and Kentucky, where officials recently unveiled plans to release some prisoners early.
"Every state is grapping with the cost of corrections right now," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which lobbies for prison reform. "The economy is giving governors the opportunity to do what makes sense for public safety, and it also happens to be cost effective as well."
In Virginia, the debate represents a major shift away from the get-tough approach of the 1990s, when then-Gov. George Allen (R) eliminated parole.
According to a working draft of the Senate plan, some nonviolent offenders would be sent home with electronic monitoring equipment to complete their sentences. But before anyone is released, the state would have to complete an aggressive risk assessment. Only those inmates who are deemed unlikely to reoffend would be eligible for early release.
Virginia already conducts electronic monitoring of about 4,000 probationers. The state does not use the devices as an alternative to incarceration, said P. Michael Leininger, a legislative liaison for the Department of Corrections.
Howell said the Senate probably will consider making it easier for drug offenders to have their sentences suspended once they receive treatment in prison. Virginia already offers drug treatment to inmates who are getting ready to leave prison, but it does not treat them when they arrive.
Under a bill by Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell), judges would be able to order people to start drug treatment as soon as they arrive at a correctional facility.
Once they complete the program, if they are evaluated and deemed not to be a future threat, they could be released from prison early, Howell said.
"We are told by judges this is the kind of thing they want," Leininger said.
Leininger said state officials and lawmakers are still trying to determine how many inmates could be eligible for early release or house arrest. "In order to get any appreciable revenue, there is going to have to be a big number," Leininger added. "At least in the 1,000 range."
Albo said House Republicans are skeptical that the proposals can be drafted to avoid high recidivism rates. House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) also appears uneasy with the Senate's approach. All 100 delegates are up for election this fall, and the GOP is already vowing to use criminal justice as an issue.
"Let's see where it ends up," Armstrong said. "I am not prepared to endorse it or reject at the moment."