- The Washington Times - Monday, November 25, 2002

DANVILLE, Va. (AP) State lawmakers are facing a prison overcrowding problem that had been alleviated by a massive prison construction program in the 1980s and 1990s.
Dick Hickman, a budget analyst for the state Senate Finance Committee, has informed state senators about several factors that have contributed to the overcrowding:
The surplus of prison cells that the state struggled to fill a few years ago is gone, and state lockups are at capacity.
A soft economy that has produced the sharpest decline in state revenue collections on record corresponds with a rise in crime.
More nonviolent offenders are being ordered back to prison for parole violations, while violent and repeat offenders serve longer terms as a result of Virginia's 1994 law abolishing parole.
The three trends, along with the closing of the state prison at Staunton, present a prison overcrowding problem as lawmakers struggle to fill a $2 billion hole in the state's budget.
For parole violators, a less expensive and more effective option to returning them to prison would be greater use of diversion programs and overnight detention centers that allow offenders to hold jobs and help pay for their accommodations, Mr. Hickman said.
The state takes in about $1 million a year from such payments, he said.
"You will need additional funding for that, and you will need to encourage judges to make greater use of these alternatives," Mr. Hickman said.
Offenders are being sent back to jail or prison in increasing numbers because the Department of Corrections, and probation and parole officers "are more proactive in finding these technical violators," he said.
Typical violations include flunking a drug test or not keeping an appointment with a parole officer.
Committing convicts to prison for a violation is at least three times more expensive than a diversion program, not counting the costs of building the additional prisons that would be needed to accommodate them, Mr. Hickman said.
"And right now there are no additional funds to expand anything," he said.
Those not sent to prisons are ordered into local jails, causing crowding there and irritating local governments already disaffected by reductions in state funding.
"Some jails call the state and say, 'Get these prisoners out of my jail,' and others say they can stay as long as they want because of the revenue they get from holding them," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican.
About 1,100 Virginia prison beds are occupied by inmates from outside the state, primarily from Vermont and Connecticut.
"It seems ironic to me that we're talking about raising thresholds for sending people to prison that could result in 400 to 500 more prisoners being put on the street but we're bringing in out-of-state prisoners," said Sen. William Bolling, Hanover Republican.
Before legislators decide to send those prisoners back, however, lawmakers will have to consider the loss of about $30 million the state receives from those states for housing the prisoners, Mr. Hickman said.
Talk of prison crowding problems did not sit well with Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., Augusta Republican.
"Why not reopen a prison that's already built at Staunton?" Mr. Hanger said.
"To me, it's bogus for us to talk about operating costs, because we've put a tremendous amount of money into that facility only to let it go."
The Staunton Correctional Center, formerly a mental hospital with buildings that date to the 1840s, was ordered closed by the General Assembly earlier this year, resulting in the loss of 378 jobs.
Renovating such an old facility was deemed prohibitively expensive.


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