Virginia is creating nearly 3,500 new prison beds by 2007. The Washington Post says the $200 million prison expansion program is one of the legacies of Virginia’s decision to abolish parole a decade ago. The 1994 initiative, which established a strict sentencing guidelines system for convicted felons, was heralded by supporters as one of the most significant shifts in criminal justice in the commonwealth’s history. Then Gov. George Allen, now a U.S. senator, said the plan would prevent 120,000 felonies over 10 years.
On the 10th anniversary of the changes, both sides in the parole debate admit that many of their predictions have not come true. The increase in prison violence that some opponents expected did not occur. Proponents acknowledge it is impossible to prove how many felonies were prevented. Crime in Virginia has decreased faster than national averages, advocates of the plan say, because violent offenders are spending more time in prison, sometimes three or four times what they served under the parole system. Felons convicted of homicide, robbery and property and drug crimes are incarcerated for an average of 90 percent of their sentences. Allen says Virginia has been a leader in making sure nonviolent offenders spend modest amounts of time in prison by using strict sentencing guidelines for judges. When the changes were made, Allen said the state would have to build 27 prisons; instead, it built 13. Some lawmakers and advocates for prisoners and their families contend that a state with declining crime rates should not need more prison capacity.