In 2014 Virginia's prison population increased for the first time in five years. The newest state budget proposed that the state spend more than $1 billion on prisons and corrections. In the last thirty years Virginia's prison population has increased more than 700 percent. 1 in every 89 Virginia residents is incarcerated.
http://youtu.be/NaPBcUUqbew this YouTube video illustrates the problem.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN: In 1994, Virginia essentially abolished parole. Incarcerated felons also stopped receiving significant time credit for working in jail, good jail behavior and drug treatment. Although the law allows "geriatric" release of prisoners over sixty five very few prisoners are released under this provision. Due to health care costs these older prisons are five times more expensive to incarcerate. At the same time the general assembly's also enacted a series of mandatory minimum laws for drug and gun offenses. To this day Virginia drug arrests remain above the national average. Local jails are affected by this issue as well. Local jails are also bound by reduction of home incarceration programs, short term mandatory sentences and statutes that direct courts to hold accused offenders without bail.
Many Virginia code sections remain ridiculously outdated or over criminalize behavior. For example, the threshold amount that makes a theft a felony has been $200 for 30 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $200 in 1980 is now equal to $531.76. Therefore, if a strict parity is to be maintained, the grand larceny threshold in Virginia should have been increased twenty years ago. The absurd result is that most theft offenses are felonies and 20% of prison inmates are serving sentences for property offenses.
Virginia is foolishly behind the times in this regard. 39 out of 50 states have felony larceny thresholds of $500 or greater. The most common threshold amounts are $500 and $1,000. Specifically, 17 states have a threshold of $500 and another seventeen states have a threshold of $1,000. Only one other state in America makes a $200 theft a felony. Virginia does not have a first offender program for any larceny offenses.
State and local jails/prisons are also burdened by the failed war on drugs. In 1980 state prisons held 19,000 people nationwide for drug offenses. By 2011, the state systems held more than 230,000 inmates.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT VIRGINIANS: Instead of your state taxes supporting health care, schools and roads, huge portions of each tax dollar are dedicated to feeding clothing and incarcerating people who might be more successfully managed on the street. Additionally, this policy of perpetual imprisonment disproportionately impacts certain communities. African Americans make up 20 percent of Virginias population but are more than 60 percent of the prison population. Despise statistics that show blacks and whites have an identical statistical rate of drug use and abuse, state police crime data shows that African Americans are arrested at much higher rates.
HOW NOT TO FIX THIS: Instead of simply incarcerating fewer people, Virginia has employed a prison for profit model. Virginia pays a private company to house some of its inmates. The craziest part of this idea is that the private prisons have an occupancy guarantee clause.
Many Virginians would be surprised to learn that Virginia has the nation's second highest prison bed guarantee more than 95%. If Virginia fails to meet capacity the contract mandates must that Virginia must pay the difference. This means Virginia must use taxpayer money to pay for empty beds if crime drops. This creates a perverse incentive to make criminal justice policy based on principles of economics instead of public safety.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE: Legislatively Virginia has to follow the direction of other states and the federal government in making efforts to reduce prison and jail population. The federal government and other states (Georgia, and Mississippi) with embarrassing incarnation rates have slowly begun to change mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, parole, and good time credits. It's very simple we should put fewer of our citizens in jail. Virginia's lawmakers must follow this trend.
Practicing criminal defense lawyers have to work within the criminal justice system to alter the adverse effects of these laws. Some jurisdictions allow lawyers to modify felony drug possession charges to avoid felony convictions. I dedicate my career to righting these wrongs. Jails and prisons are for people that have legitimately forfeited their right to freedom. Prison is not an appropriate remedy for those who commit actions that have been ruled illegal but do not directly violate or threaten the rights of any other individual. Virginias would be better served if their tax money is used for building schools, paying teachers, fixing roads or supporting health care.