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Prisons | Governor McDonnell signs legislation designed to cut down the number of repeat offenders
by Zachary Abate
Posted 6/23/11, 05:54 pm

Gov. Bob McDonnell signed seven pieces of legislation on Tuesday designed to cut down on the state's repeat offenders. The bills, signed at the Central Virginia Goodwill Headquarters in Richmond, focus on integrating prisoners back into the community upon their release.

"An effective prisoner re-entry plan is good government. It improves public safety, reduces recidivism and victimization and improves the outcome for offenders returning to our communities," McDonnell said. "We do not want to see offenders come back to jail; we want to see them go to work."

McDonnell has worked towards prisoner re-entry reform for over a year. In May 2010, he announced the creation of a council to study methods of coordinating state, private, and faith-based resources to better integrate prisoners back into society. McDonnell also appointed the first statewide prisoner re-entry coordinator last year to help state agencies develop a new prisoner re-entry strategy. In September, the governor announced that Virginia had secured $1.5 million from the federal government to construct program reforms.

Every year more than 13,000 adults and juveniles are released from incarceration in Virginia.

The bills signed on Tuesday include: SB1170, which requires court services to contact local department of social services 90 days before a prisoner is released from a juvenile facility regarding placement and transition; SB923, which requires the Department of Corrections to establish a "trust account" for each inmate; SB1258, which requires the Department of Corrections to offer testing for human immunodeficiency virus to any prisoner within 60 days of his discharge, and HB1613, which allows prison workforces to help maintain privately owned, abandoned cemeteries.

"I applaud Governor McDonnell in his efforts to develop a comprehensive re-entry plan," said Del. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg). The reforms "will effectively make our communities safer and improve the chances of offenders successfully becoming productive and active members of society."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 650,000 people are released from state and federal prison every year. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that over two-thirds of released state prisoners are re-arrested.

"For each offender who recidivates, it means a new crime and a new victim," McDonnell wrote in an op-ed for The Ribbon Forum, a national policy publication. "In addition to new victims, recidivism means more human suffering and higher costs to the taxpayer through police and court process, as well as re-incarceration."

The state spends $25,000 a year to house an adult inmate and $70,000 a year to house a juvenile.

Virginia has the seventh lowest crime rate in the country, and according to the Pew Center on the States, the state has the fifth lowest recidivism rate. Still, McDonnell argues that the state "can and must do better."

McDonnell noted that re-incarceration has a negative impact on children, who are left without a social guide or financial supporter, and on communities, that have to deal with crimes, victims and loss of revenue. Re-entry preparation must begin while the inmate is still in prison, he said, with programs that help change criminal thinking habits and offer inmates opportunities to practice "socially responsible thinking and behavior." But for those who continue to commit crimes, "the application of swift and strong punishment through our criminal justice system is imperative."

Inmate re-entry is a national issue and could become even more significant after a recent Supreme Court ruling that may force California to release about 45,000 inmates, some violent, before completing their sentences (see "Don't panic," June 6). A federal prosecutor in Oklahoma introduced a program earlier this week aiming to educate ex-convicts on the severe consequences of repeating crimes. In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback launched Out4Life, a program that helps prisoners re-enter society upon their release. Kansas is the 13th state to launch an Out4Life program.

In January, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder convened the Inaugural Cabinet-Level Re-entry Council with the goals of reducing recidivism across the country, assisting those released from prison in becoming productive members of society, and saving taxpayer money by lowering the number of prisoners re-incarcerated.

"When a crime is committed, the individual responsible must be punished to the fullest extent," McDonnell said. "But when that prison sentence is completed, and the price to society has been paid, we need to take the additional steps necessary to ensure that our prison system is not a revolving door."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Zachary Abate

Zachary is a sports fanatic working as a WORLD intern out of Purcellville, Va. He currently studies at Patrick Henry College.

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