by guest blogger Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the ACLU's National Prison Project from 1996-2009.  Ms. Alexander is currently a lawyer in private practice specializing in conditions of confinement claims.
Virginia continues to lock up a disproportionate percentage of its residents.  While the United States as a whole suffers from a historically unprecedented high rate of incarceration, Virginia’s rate is well above the national average.   In fact, since 2000, Virginia’s prison population has increased by 58%.  As a result, Virginia’s incarceration rate has moved from the 19th highest to the 12th highest among states, at the same time that the index crime rate (meaning the rate as measured under FBI methodology) in Virginia declined less than the average for the 25 states that did best in resisting increased incarceration rates.  But for this higher rate of incarceration since 2000, Virginia taxpayers would have saved a billion dollars.
A recent story in the Washington Post, however, suggested that Virginia has a lower rate of recidivism than the majority of states, so some might argue that the Virginia Department of Corrections is lowering future crime rates by rehabilitating current prisoners.  Unfortunately, such a suggestion does not survive close examination.  The recidivism rate used in the Post article has two components: the rate of commission of new crimes and the rate of return to prison based only on technical violations of the release rules.  Of course, the rate that relates directly to public safety is the rate of commission of new crimes.  On this rate, Virginia did worse than most of the states reporting data.  In fact, the rate of prison return for new crimes in Virginia has actually increased, with nearly one-quarter of all prisoners returning because of commission of a new crime.
In order to get this number down, Virginia needs to address the reasons why so many former prisoners have trouble returning to the community. Imprisonment seriously damages future economic prospects.  Ex-prisoners are barred from many licensing programs, as well as many governmental programs.  Families are separated and frequently torn apart.  Because research has repeatedly shown that the two factors that correlate most strongly with an ex-prisoner avoiding a return to criminal acts are retaining family ties and finding employment upon release, successful rehabilitative programs require focused, evidence-based approaches.  Providing support for ex-prisoners to rehabilitate themselves is not only the humane alternative, but also the best way to protect the community by lowering the crime rate.
Michigan, for example, has recently reduced its prison population substantially, in significant part because the state could no longer afford its prison system.  At the same time, the Department of Corrections developed a sophisticated and highly focused program to promote rehabilitation.  Planning for re-entry begins when the prisoner arrives at the beginning of his or her sentence.  By the time of release into the community, the prisoner’s needs have been analyzed, services needed in the prison system have been provided, and the prisoner has been linked up with community services that will be available after release.  As a result of these steps, Michigan reports that its rate for prison return is now at its lowest in almost a quarter of century. Other states have also adopted evidence-programs that have paid off in reduced recidivism rates.
Successful rehabilitation programs are a win-win across the board, since they protect community safety, return ex-prisoners to productive lives, and save huge amounts of taxpayer money. Although the real solution to Virginia’s incarceration binge is a comprehensive reform of sentencing, in the interim the Virginia Department of Corrections can mitigate the harm by focusing on preparing prisoners for successful re-entry.