How to Correct Corrections

jailby Sarah Scarbrough

The terms jail and prison are used interchangeably and most people don’t realize the difference. Historically, jail has been reserved for a sentence of a year or less and prison for more than a year. Additionally, jails are the holding place for individuals as they await trail, whereas, prisons are for convicted felons after sentencing.

In Virginia, many jail inmates are state offenders paid for by the Department of Corrections (DOC) and housed there, often for years, due to prison overcrowding. I knew many such inmates during my four-year study at the Richmond City jail. Many local jails face overcrowding problems too, which is another topic for another post, but the housing of DOC offenders in jails certainly escalates that issue.

Virginia has made great strides during the McDonnell administration to enhance the effectiveness of offender re-entry from the prison system. Measures include bringing the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) into the prison to assist inmates in obtaining an identification card and help gain their driver’s license upon release, providing crisis intervention teams that focus on mental health and helping gain licenses for apprenticeship programs. However, DOC offenders housed in local jails are not eligible for these programs. While some jails do not have programming available, not all do. Additionally, state agencies like DMV are not present in jails, so program offerings frequently are not parallel. Thus, the qualified and holistic programs individuals need during their incarceration and prior to release are not available.

While programming is equally important in jails and prison, administering effective programming in jails is difficult because of the short sentences typically served. Substance abuse is a large contributor to the jail population. Yet the short jail sentences provide inadequate time for effective substance abuse programming. Consequently, addicts are being released back to the street – most frequently to the same street corner, with the same people, who continue to do the same thing they were doing prior to the incarceration.

So, what is the solution? The state controls prisons and local sheriffs control the jail; sheriffs usually lack the resources to replicate a program parallel to the state’s. However, there are certainly many innovative things that can be done at the local level. Alternatives to jail incarceration should be pursued further by policy makers.

There was a nice article entitled, Program marks 10 years of changing addicts lives, in the local Sunday paper, the Richmond Times Dispatch, featuring the success of local drug courts. (In the secondary data section of my dissertation, there is a section on drug courts and their effectiveness, if you are interested in reading my thoughts on the program.) There are other evidence-based measures that also can be put in place as alternatives to sentencing, especially among those convicted of substance related crimes.

At the state level, the measures mentioned above should be expanded. These programs should be offered to all DOC offenders incarcerated in jails and prisons. Alternatives to sentencing also can be sought for individuals serving prison time. Effective evidence-based programs are essential, as prison sentences provide convicts years, sometimes decades, to become better criminals and much more angry. Re-entry housing should be addressed, as most people getting out of prison have nowhere to live.

These ideas are only tipping the iceberg. Unless much more work is done, more people will wind up dead, locked up, or innocently victimized by criminal actions.

Sarah Scarbrough serves on the board of Kingdom Life Ministries. She blogs about correctional issues at

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One response to “How to Correct Corrections”

  1. I applaud Ms. Scarboroughs – avocation and passion – and her dedication.

    What we are seeing is the downstream expensive impacts of a failure to adequately educate – the most difficult demographic to educate.

    One you fail – the rest is a tragedy not only of individuals but our institutions – and …really.. .us… as we all endlessly argue about why taxpayers should be funding “takers”.

    Yet, we offer no real solutions to the education conundrum other than to attack union “thuggery”, “bad teachers”, and academic standards.

    the “solution” is to abandon the public schools and send kids with vouchers in hand to for-profit schools and/or schools who don’t have to meet public school standards.

    we are royally screwed up… and worse.. we don’t know how to fix it so folks like Ms. Scarborough have to spend a career helping/trying to undo our “dumbness”.

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