Early Prisoner Release Will Not Help Much

Virginia Correctional Center for Women

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

Governor Ralph Northam has announced that he will ask the General Assembly for authority to release from prison those offenders with a year or less to serve on their sentences in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in prisons. He stressed that only those who have demonstrated good behavior and would not pose a threat to society would be eligible.

The vehicle for the request would be an amendment to the budget bill for the current fiscal, the “caboose” bill. That bill would take effect as soon as the Governor signs it.

In its latest release, DOC reported 26 offenders testing positive, with 6 of those being hospitalized. That is an increase of one in the total number, as well as one more in the hospital, from the previous day. The agency also reported 25 staff members testing positive, an increase of three from the previous day.

It is not clear how many offenders will be affected by the early-release proposal. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the number potentially eligible was not available. However, the Daily Press reported the Secretary of Public Safety as saving that just under 2,000 would be eligible. It is not known if that is the number meeting all three criteria (time left to serve, good behavior, no threat to public safety) or just the number with a year or less to serve.

The number 2,000 seems too small, when compared to the total state-responsible population. Each year, approximately 10,000-12,000 of the approximately 36,000 state-responsible offenders are released from incarceration. (Another 12,000 or so are newly committed.) Therefore, over the next 12 months, the sentences of 10,000-12,000 state-responsible offenders will be finished and they will be released from custody. Even taking into consideration good behavior and threat to society, 2,000 seems too small.

One answer lies in the complexities of the Commonwealth’s corrections system. The state has approximately 30,000 prison beds. The remainder of the offenders convicted of a felony offense and eligible to be housed in a prison (“state-responsible”) must be housed in jails. Most of those state-responsible offenders housed in jails have sentences of less than 24 months. Each year, about 8,000 state-responsible offenders are released from jails without ever having to serve time in a prison. At any one time, there are approximately 6,000 state responsible inmates in local and regional jails. A significant portion of those likely have one year or less to serve on their sentences.

It does not seem that the Governor’s proposal would apply to those state-responsible offenders in jails. That seems inequitable. It may be that the Governor does not have the legal authority to effect those offenders’ release. That could be remedied with the wording of the proposed budget amendment.

Of course, it also seems inequitable that some state offenders with a year or less to serve get released early while local offenders in jails, convicted of a misdemeanor and having less than a year to serve, have to stay in jail. The budget amendment could address that situation, as well. But, the question quickly becomes: Where do we stop?

Implementing the Governor’s proposal will not be easy. Northam made it clear that the normal re-entry planning needs to take place. The key component is a home plan: where the offender will live when he is released. If he wants to live with family, the family must be willing to accept him. In a significant number of cases, family members will indicate a willingness to accept an offender upon release, only to change their minds as the date of release gets nearer. For those with no home, there are residential facilities or even motels, which can provide temporary shelter, but those are in short supply and, with the coronavirus crisis, many motels may be closed. Typically, counselors in the offenders’ institutions, working with the offenders and with the probation and parole officers in the localities to which the offenders will be released, develop the home plan. In the case of difficult cases, the staff in the central and regional offices get involved. All this coordination will be made much harder by the social distancing now required. Also, it will come on top of the home plans needing to be developed for offenders being released in ordinary due course.

The practical effect of the proposal will likely be less dramatic than it would seem on its face. The Governor’s proposal hopefully has been in the works for at least a couple of weeks. If so, DOC has had some time to begin preparing for it. Even so, it will be a major challenge. The result will be that not all 2,000 eligible offenders will be automatically released on the date the bill becomes effective. Northam made it clear that was not the case, only that the DOC director would have the discretion to release offenders for up to one year before their sentences expired. To what extent that happens will depend on how quickly DOC can move in the currently constrained environment.

Another complicating factor will be the supervision of any additional released offenders. Presumably, they will not be released unconditionally, but under probation supervision. (Most will have a court-ordered period of supervision, regardless.) Most probation officers are carrying higher caseloads than are recommended for proper supervision. The social distancing rules have undoubtedly made supervision of their caseloads harder. Additions to their caseload will make their work harder.

There is no doubt that many prisons are crowded. They have been for many years. DPB pushed DOC to make maximum use of its bed capacity. However, that crowding has been easing naturally in recent months. On the one hand, there has been the normal number of offenders released as their sentences were completed. On the other, at the beginning of the coronavirus emergency, DOC stopped intake of state-responsible offenders from the jails, thereby not filling those beds being vacated by released offenders.

Most of those offenders that will be newly eligible for release are likely housed in Level 1 or 2 facilities (low or medium low security), which are dormitory facilities. It would seem that those type facilities would be the ones in which offenders would be the most vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus. However, only two of the four facilities in which inmates have tested positive are dormitory facilities (Haynesville and Central Virginia Correctional Unit). The most serious outbreak has been in the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, which is not a dormitory facility. The release of an additional 2,000 offenders (out of a total population of 29,000 spread over 38 facilities), at an undetermined rate, however well-intentioned, may make a difference in some of the dormitory facilities, but it is hard to imagine that it will have much effect elsewhere in the system.

To be fair to the Governor, however, he cannot just practically throw the prison gates open as some are advocating.

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9 responses to “Early Prisoner Release Will Not Help Much

  1. Good overview. The situation is far more complicated then I had imagined. One particular point strikes me: What if they released 2,000 prisoners and they had nowhere to stay? These are not normal times. What if family members don’t take them? What if halfway houses are full? Where do the released felons go?

    • johnrandolphofroanoke

      Mr. Bacon is right! The normal channels of support will not be as useful in this present climate. Without that support as many as 68% could end up back in the criminal justice shuffle.

      https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/18upr9yfup0514pr.pdf

    • If I learned anything from my many years as the DOC analyst for DPB, it was that things in Corrections are never as simple or straightforward as they might seem from the outside.

      • AND… if you look at DOC with a half glass perspective, the failure to get to a “good” solution all around – means another govt agency that has “failed”.

        NOT!

        One would think that as long as we have been doing – prisons, roads, schools, health care – that would have got it “right” by now.

        NOT!

        However, the interface between prisons and society – when they come out – has not been a “recipe” that works everytime. You take someone out of society for a number of years – put a “felon” label on them – then turn them lose to go back to society – and even when there is not coronavirus – it’s often not an easy thing and you know it’s not when some prisoners don’t want to be released because prison is all they know.

  2. “Good overview.” Yes, indeed. Thanks Dick.

  3. Thanks Dick. Northam is not the only GOv… and even the Fed AG is advocating it.

    There are no easy answers. If people in prison have no place to go – what are they to do? It’s hard enough in normal times to go find a job when you have a criminal record.

    What I would say here – may not be true – but it FEELS like the prisons are trying to do what is best for THEM – best for their situation – by shedding responsibility for caring for all prisoners..

    They’re justifying it by saying “these are not bad offenders” but that’s not only not the point – it’s like saying they should not have been there to start with – which MAY BE TRUE – we have more people in prison (as a percentage of our population) than any other country in the world – even China, Russia and we justify it by saying we have “law and order”.

    At any rate, I just think this is terribly short-sighted. Dumping people out into society in the middle of a pandemic – and they have no place to go and no means of support just sounds terrible.

    • First, I don’t think this initiative came from DOC. Likely, it was the Governor’s response to the clamor from the ACLU and other offender advocates.
      Second, for this move to be effective against the virus, most non-violent offenders, regardless of time left to serve, would need to be released. But, as I point out in my discussion, doing that all at once would involve a whole other set of problems.
      Third, in the news reports the Governor has made it clear that any inmate without a home or other placement to go to would not be released early.

  4. This is not going to end well for anybody. There are already criminals in Virginia using COVID-19 to commit new crimes.

    https://www.wdbj7.com/content/news/Health-district-warns-of-fake-door-to-door-COVID-19-testing-569138551.html

    The IHME estimate of COVID-19 deaths in Virginia has fallen from 3,400 to 830 in the last two weeks. The projected lack of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators is not coming true. Meanwhile, places like the National Conference Center in Leesburg has been discussed as being usable as an emergency medical facility to treat COVID-19 cases. Given the dramatic drop in estimates of COVID-19 hospitalizations, ICU admissions and ventilators … why not use the National Conference Center as a temporary jail? If it was useable by people who were known to have COVID-19 it should be usable by people who might have COVID-19.

    There are no jobs for these released prisoners right now. The few employers who are hiring have their pick of potential employees. They will not hire criminals released early because of a virus. The released prisoners will be highly likely to re-offend and end up serving more time than they would have served if they stayed in jail. The citizens who they victimize will have an unnecessary crime added to their COVID-19 lockdown woes.

    This is just another government failure in process.

  5. Seems like even if you put all of the folks they want to release in some existing facility like a convention center, you still need staff/guards, you still need a way to feed them, you need toilet facilities, etc… where would you get the staff to guard and do food?

    Makes me wonder if the right answer is an island…like some of our prisons of old like Alcatraz.

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