RICHMOND (AP) — About 6,700 additional inmates are expected to enter Virginia's prison system in the next five years, and officials are looking for ways to keep up with the surge.
A half-dozen major prison projects are planned, under way or recently completed, costing about $300 million.
Since 1990, rising crime, predictions of rising crime and tougher sentencing has led the state to approve 21,000 new prison beds at a cost of more than $1 billion.
A new prison in Grayson County is expected to be completed by 2010, but more will be needed if the forecast for the next five years proves accurate. Officials say one new prison is needed for every 1,100 additional inmates, each costing about $100 million to build and $25 million annually to operate.
"It's going to require building one prison a year. I don't like that fact," said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican and chairman of the Virginia State Crime Commission and the House Courts of Justice Committee. "But I think that spending a hundred million a year to keep violent criminals and drug dealers out of my neighborhood is worth it."
There were 38,007 state inmates as of June 30, 2007, and the state's population of felons is larger than the Virginia cities of Manassas, Petersburg, Fredericksburg or Winchester.
"More offenders are being committed to prison, and they are incarcerated, on average, for longer periods," Deputy Secretary of Public Safety Barry Green said.
The Virginia Department of Corrections is now the state's largest agency with more than 13,000 employees and this year, its annual budget topped $1 billion for the first time.
Despite that, Virginia's imprisonment rate is lower than many states.
According to the most recent federal figures available, 472 persons are in prison for every 100,000 Virginians, compared with the national average of nearly 500. And Virginia's per capita spending on prisons ranks 20th among states and its crime rate 37th.
According to state figures, the percentage of violent offenders in state prisons has increased since 1994 from 69 percent to 79 percent, with burglary counted as a violent offense.
But some critics, including Marc Mauer, executive director of the D.C.-based Sentencing Project, insist Virginia and other states are imprisoning many people who are not dangerous to the public.
"We should be looking at other intensive supervision options in the community that can be far less costly than incarceration and arguably more productive in keeping the offender in the community," he said.
"It's not a question of prison or do nothing — it's what else could we do as an alternative [to prison] that both protects the public and changes behavior in a less costly way."