A Sensible Virginia Proposal - Early Freedom for Nonviolent Offenders

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

ABIPARTISAN group of Virginia state senators, led by Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) and Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), have drawn up a plan to save taxpayers millions of dollars by allowing some nonviolent offenders to be released early from prison. The proposal would let prison officials use their discretion to release low-risk offenders up to 90 days before the end of their sentences. Officials already have the power to shorten sentences by 30 days.

Those convicted of drug possession would be given an opportunity for even greater leniency. The plan would mandate that such inmates have access to treatment programs at the beginning of their incarceration; currently, inmates are offered treatment toward the end of their terms. A judge, in consultation with prison officials, would have discretion to order the early release of an inmate who successfully completed extensive drug rehabilitation. The proposal also calls for some nonviolent offenders to be placed in community-based programs rather than jail and for others to be monitored electronically instead of being locked up.

The plan, rooted in the state's growing fiscal crisis, is aimed at advancing the effort by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to save roughly $50 million by closing two prisons. The success of a program in the state of Washington that is similar to the one being mulled in Virginia suggests the risks are reasonable and the potential savings substantial.

In 2003, Washington state legislators allowed for sentence reductions of up to 50 percent for nonviolent offenders. Excluded from this program are those who have been convicted of a violent crime or sexual offense, as well as those guilty of selling drugs to a minor or any other crime against a person. Eligible inmates earn early release credits each month by staying out of trouble and completing work, education and treatment programs. Inmates can lose credits because of bad behavior or become ineligible for release if they commit a serious infraction behind bars.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the research arm of the state's legislature, followed roughly 2,600 inmates released early from 2003 to 2007. The institute compared this group to roughly 4,800 similar inmates who had served their full sentences and were released before the inception of the 2003 program. In a report released in November, the institute concluded that the program saved taxpayers an average of $10,000 per prisoner. The recidivism rate for those released early was about 3 percent lower than for the control group.

Releasing offenders early always carries political and real-life risks. But Washington's example shows that carefully screening inmates for eligibility and strictly limiting early release to well-behaved, nonviolent offenders can save tax dollars, preserve public safety and result in a more rational penal system.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company