Report criticizes Virginia corrections policies

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Local,Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A report issued Wednesday by a justice reform organization says that Virginia is spending too much to keep too many people locked up for too long.

The Justice Policy Institute's report suggests Virginia should follow the lead of other states that are cutting costs and reducing prison populations without compromising public safety.

The report says Virginia has registered its first prison population increase in five years and is about to exceed $1 billion in annual spending on corrections for the first time since 2009. Despite those developments, lawmakers have rejected proposals to cut prison time for certain nonviolent offenders.

"Taxpayers' wallets — and more important, people's lives — are in jeopardy," the institute's executive director, Marc Schindler, said in a written statement accompanying the report.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has not seen the report but will review its findings, spokesman Brian Coy said. He said McAuliffe is committed to putting Virginians' safety first, but doing so in the most cost-effective manner possible.

According to the report, Virginia ranks second only to Florida in the average increase in length of prison stays since 1990. The authors cited several reasons for that, including parole abolition and the "truth in sentencing" reforms that require inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Expansion of mandatory minimum prison terms — about one-fourth of which are applied to drug offenses — and an extremely low 3.5 percent early-release rate for inmates convicted before parole was abolished in 1995 also are factors, according to the report.

While the violent crime rate in Virginia is now lower than any time since the 1960s, 22 states that did not enact similar sentencing reforms have experienced equal or greater reductions in crime, the report says.

Other key findings include:

— For every dollar spent on community supervision, Virginia spends about $13 to keep inmates locked up.

— African Americans make up about 20 percent of the Virginia population, but 60 percent of the prison population and 72 percent of all people imprisoned for a drug offense.

— Drug arrests have increased by 163 percent since 1999 as Virginia expanded the list of drugs that are criminalized and decreased the amount of drugs that constitute a felony.

The report says several measures that would have addressed some of the problems failed in the 2014 General Assembly. One would have raised from $200 to $500 the threshold for elevating a theft from petty larceny to grand larceny. Others would have increased the parole grant rate and boosted the maximum time off for good behavior earned by drug offenders.

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