Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton's plan to build more prisons was sharply attacked today by religious leaders and two key legislators who complained that the governor would spend millions of dollars "on bricks and mortar" and virtually nothing on inmate rehabilitation.
Del. Frank M. Slayton (D-South Boston), who heads the subcommittee that oversees corrections appropriations, served notice on Dalton that he would try to kill at least one of the prison construction projects. He said the budget funds should be diverted to establish restitution and work-release programs.
"Dalton wants to start this massive building program, but there's just no reason why Virginia should spend $50,000 a bed to house people in prisons when 23 percent of the prison population is there for nonviolent crimes," Slayton said.
Sounding the same theme, an organization calling itself the Interfaith Social and Legislative Action Group warned Dalton that it would challenge his prison budget in the General Assembly this year.
The governor's proposed two-year budget requests nearly $45 million for new prison construction and renovations. In addition, according to Slayton, the budget contains more than $15 million to complete construction of three other prisons already being built or in operation.
Slayton also noted that the state's master plan for prison construction -- initially expected to cost about $80 million, according to the Department of Corrections -- was revised after the House Appropriations Committee settled on a construction method that was $6 million cheaper per prison.
If even one of Dalton's proposed prisons is scrapped, Slayton said, it would free nearly $5 million for rehabilitation programs like those operating successfully in many other states.
At a news conference held in a church basement a block from the Capitol, a dozen religious leaders representing various denominations also discussed the findings of a study of Virginia's prison system conducted by the group.
While the number of felons incarcerated has increased by 47 percent since 1976, the statewide crime rate is in slight decline, the group said in questioning Dalton's prison-building program.
The group also noted that one out of every 213 black persons in Virginia is in prison and that blacks are seven times more likely to be in prison than whites and for longer sentences.
The Rev. Fletcher Lowe Jr. of Richmond, the group's chairman, criticized Dalton's willingness to expand prison construction and claimed the governor has provided too little money for delinquency prevention and compensation to victims of crime.
"When are we going to be willing to take that whole bag of money for bricks and mortar and spend it on programs to help cut down on crime?" asked Lowe, who said rehabilitation was safer for the public since inmates should leave prison better, not worse.
Del. Erwin (Shad) Solomon (D-Hot Springs), chairman of the Virginia Crime Commission's subcommittee on corrections, said Dalton and previous administrations have "stymied" the legislature's interest in reducing recidivism rather than "warehousing" inmates.
"You don't throw excessive dollars into a bankrupt corporation," he said. "Neither do you throw dollars into a corrections system that needs help in other ways besides capital improvement."