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Commentary: Under Gov. Youngkin, prison reform is working

The following is a recent op-ed by CPAC Foundation Nolan Center for Justice Policy Analyst, Helen Weston, published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Last month, we received welcomed news from Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) Director Chad Dotson that four state correctional facilities will permanently close in 2024. This decision demonstrates Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s leadership in improving both public and facility safety while ensuring more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

Evidence shows that chronic prison understaffing is a recipe for disaster. The current vacancy rate for correctional officers sits around 26%, while violence and lockdowns are not uncommon. Exposure to violence and threats contribute to the high prevalence of mental health and safety concerns among corrections officers that exacerbate retention and recruitment issues. Further, lockdowns and understaffing can thwart the administration of positive programming — violence begets fear and trauma. Prisons are meant to correct behavior and hold incarcerated people accountable, not teach them how to survive in a culture of violence. For these reasons, the Youngkin administration’s move to consolidate the population into fewer facilitates, thus improving operational efficiency and safety, is a wise decision.

This decision builds on Virginia’s concerted effort to improve public safety by modernizing its criminal justice system over the last several years. Under former Gov. Ralph Northam's administration, earned sentence credits were expanded. These programs reward participation in rehabilitative and skill training programs with an earlier release date. Well over 40 states have some form of sentence credits to encourage good behavior and engagement in recidivism-reducing activities.

The Youngkin administration has supplemented this work by investing in violence prevention and intervention efforts while outlining a plan to increase mental and behavioral health support and crisis response efforts. The governor has also signed a series of initiatives to improve transparency in the parole process and create new independent oversight of state prisons. The governor’s new budget underlines his commitment to public safety with the provision of continued funding for these efforts.

Virginia continues to maintain one of the lowest recidivism rates in the United States. By embracing evidence-based policies, Virginia has begun to experience a decline in its prison population. Overall, the average daily population held in the state’s 27 largest prisons has declined by approximately 15% from estimates before the pandemic. The state has seen the total population of state-responsible inmates held in both state facilities and local jails decline by more than 2,000 people since the implementation of the expanded earned sentence credits in July 2022.

There is still more to be done, but with a governor like Youngkin prioritizing public safety and the taxpayer’s dollar while using evidence-based results, Virginians are sure to experience a hopeful and safe new year. This DOC announcement is just one of many of those success stories with continued, positive improvements following the 2024 legislative session to come. Altogether, these changes will lead to a more innovative and effective criminal justice system making our communities safer while creating more opportunities for second chances.


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