Prison Space Fiscal Impacts

In 1993, the late, great Delegate Chip Woodrum of Roanoke introduced a bill, which was subsequently enacted into law, to hold the General Assembly fiscally accountable for any legislation it passed that would add to the Commonwealth’s prison population.  The statute has been tweaked several times since its original enactment, but the overall purpose remains the same: the General Assembly must provide a specific appropriation to cover a portion of the costs of housing any additional inmates resulting from the passage of a crime-related bill.  Around Capitol Square, any legislation meeting this criteria is known as a “Woodrum bill.”

Del. Chip Woodrum Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The statute directs the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission (subject of a future post) to prepare the fiscal impact statement.  In accordance with the law’s provisions, the Sentencing Commission staff project how many additional inmates would be housed in each of the succeeding six years as a result of the enactment of a proposed bill.  It then takes the highest of those six annual projections and multiplies it by the average annual cost of housing an inmate in prison (supplied by the Department of Planning and Budget) to determine the fiscal impact of the bill.  If there is insufficient data available to make a determination of a bill’s impact, a provision of the Appropriations Act requires that an impact of $50,000 be assigned.

The Code treats the fiscal impact of Woodrum bills differently than those for other bills.  First, there is a statutory requirement that there be a general fund appropriation for the impact.  Second, it requires that the fiscal impact be printed “on the face” of the bill (but not codified).  Thus, each Woodrum bill will have a separate enactment clause at the end setting out its fiscal impact.  And, finally, the law requires that any Woodrum bill appropriation be deposited into a special fund and “expended solely” for capital expenses of the Department of Corrections.

The following types of bills would qualify as Woodrum bills:

  1. Creating a new felony offense;
  2. Expanding the application of an existing felony offense;
  3. Increasing the penalty for an existing felony offense, e.g. changing a Class 6 felony to Class 5; and
  4. Increasing an existing misdemeanor offense to a felony, e.g. changing a Class 1 misdemeanor (the highest level of misdemeanor offenses) to a Class 6 felony (the lowest felony classification).

The statute has a comparable requirement for any bill that would result in an increase in the number of juveniles housed in the state’s juvenile offender facilities, but it is seldom activated.

The Sentencing Commission is well-suited to conduct these prison-bed impact analyses.  The Commission staff have extensive backgrounds and training in criminology and data analysis.  The Commission also has access to a large set of criminal incidence and sentencing data.   For anyone wonkish enough to be interested in criminal data details, she would do well to read the FIS prepared by the Sentencing Commission.  They often include data on the frequency of occurrence of the offense that is the subject of the bill.  The FIS footnotes also often contain details that shed light on the criminal justice system.

The Woodrum process has been effective in limiting the enactment of legislation expanding the criminal code.  First of all, all bills that would have a fiscal impact, including Woodrum bills, must run the gauntlet of two committees—the subject matter committee and the budget committee (Appropriations in the House and Finance and Appropriations in the Senate).  Second, the General  Assembly has been consistent over the years in complying with the Woodrum process.

Woodrum bills have been handled in past years somewhat differently in the two houses.  In the House of Delegates, the chairman of  the House Appropriations Committee lets the chairman of the Courts of Justice know how much total appropriation would be available for Woodrum bills. As the Courts of Justice Committee would hear the Woodrum bills during the session, it would set aside those it approved of generally (put in the “lock box” was the term used).  As the deadline for committees to report bills neared, the senior members of the Courts Committee would review the Woodrum bills in the “lock box” and choose the ones that it wanted to advance whose total Woodrum impact would be within the limit set by the Appropriations Committee.

In the Senate, the Courts of Justice Committee (now named the Committee on the Judiciary) would act on the Woodrum bills on their merits and then re-refer to the Finance Committee (now Finance and Appropriations) those it chose to report.  Like the House, the leadership of the Senate Finance Committee established the amount of appropriations available for Woodrum bills.  The Public Safety Subcommittee of Senate Finance then sorted through the  Woodrum bills referred to it and selected the bills to be reported whose total Woodrum impact did not exceed the limit it had been given.

Of course, all the committees involved are under new leadership and procedures and practices may change.  In the Senate, the chairmen of the relevant committees and subcommittees have been around for many years and, therefore, it is likely the procedure will not change much.  For the House, the situation is different; most of the committee and subcommittee chairmen are relatively new and have not been involved in the process in the past.  Therefore, it is too early to tell what changes in procedure, if any, will be made.

The limitation on the amount of Woodrum appropriation available made it doubly difficult for Woodrum bills to be passed.  Even the minimum impact of $50,000 (a small amount in terms of the overall budget) could doom a bill.  When a Woodrum impact was assigned to a bill, it was not uncommon for a patron to ask Sentencing Commission staff what changes to the bill could be made to reduce or eliminate the fiscal impact.  Because the fiscal impact was predicated on the bill resulting in more people being confined in prison, eliminating the impact would necessitate changing the bill so additional people did not go to prison.  An unasked question:  If the bill is not going to have an impact on criminal sentences, why introduce it?

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11 responses to “Prison Space Fiscal Impacts

  1. The late Clifton A. “Chip” Woodrum, Jr. devised this ingenious process to kill crime bills without risking being tagged “soft on crime”. They usually needed killing, and it gave the patrons a way out, too. But the real purpose was to make it harder to put more people in jail, or put them in jail for longer periods. I do think it started to dampen down the numbers of such bills.

  2. So, George Allen was 1994, after 1993 with his “tough on crime” measures. Was he required to do the “Woodrum” treatment also for his bills?

    • The crush of silly crime bills (and some serious ones defense lawyers hated) was very bipartisan. Allen never had the pleasure of working with GOP majorities in either body, so anything he did — including parole reform, truth in sentencing — was very bipartisan. Partisan hacks ignore that, so I’m happy to remind….Parole reform and truth in sentencing actually didn’t add to time served in many cases.

      • Perhaps but the end result was the prisons were overfilled and more had to be built – no?

        That HAD to impact the budget – not only new prisons but the continuing cost to staff them.

    • Yes, the Woodrum requirements applied to parole abolition, as well as other crime-related bills introduced during those years. See HB 5001 (https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?943+sum+HB5001) and HB 5002 (https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?943+sum+HB5002) of the 1994 Special Session II.

      • I thought that a lot of things had to have FIS not just prisons. How is this aspect different?

        • All bills that have fiscal implications eventually have a FIS. The Woodrum is different in several ways: it is required by Code (there is no Code requirement for most FIS); the fiscal impact is printed on the actual bill (no other bill has the fiscal impact printed on the bill itself); the FIS is prepared by the Sentencing Commission, using actual sentencing and crime data (DPB prepares most FIS, using its own knowledge of agencies and information provided by them); there is a statutory requirement that an appropriation be provided for the Woodrum impact (the GA can ignore the FIS for other bills and not provide an appropriation to cover their impact). Another major difference is that, because the Woodrum impact must be printed on the bill, the Sentencing Commission gets to start preparing its FIS when the bill request is initially received by Legislative Services. When the bill is introduced, the Sentencing Commission FIS is in the computer system and the impact is incorporated into the bill upon printing and the FIS report is available immediately in the Legislative Information System. For other bills, DPB must wait until a bill is actually introduced and then start preparing the FIS. The result is that, for a Woodrum bill, the GA knows right away what the fiscal impact is. For other bills, there is usually a delay and the GA charges ahead without knowing what the fiscal impact may be.

  3. Dick, Thanks again for an informative primer on General Assembly legislating and budgeting…

    The Woodrum bill requirement to disclose fiscal impacts makes sense. I don’t see that Virginia’s criminal justice system is any the worse off for it — Virginia has the 4th lowest violent crime rate in the country (the lowest outside of New England), and the prison system has one of the lowest recidivism rates. As Steve notes above, the Woodrum requirement has probably stifled a lot of “tough on crime” bills that needed killing.

  4. Does the law work in reverse? If a law will decrease the prison population, are funds withdrawn from the prison-support fund?

    • I would HOPE that on the operating side (not capital) that Corrections receives funding on a per inmate basis – like schools do for kids.

      If not, I might be with Fred….

      • First of all, the Woodrum process does not operate in reverse. If a bill would reduce the number of offenders in prison, funding is not taken from DOC.

        Second, the funding for DOC is not generally on a per inmate basis. The basis for funding is the total cost of operating prisons. The cost of operating a prison with the capacity of housing 1,200 inmates will be largely the same whether the average daily number of inmates is 1,100 or 1,185. There are some exceptions, however, especially in those instances in which DOC contracts out services. In those cases, the funding is based on the annual average number of inmates.

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