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In Depth: Virginia's Parole System Under the Microscope - Part 3

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) -

Today, we complete our in-depth series on where the parole system stands in Virginia. In our 3-part series, we looked at how 22 years of the Truth in Sentencing Act has affected the criminal justice system. Truth in sentencing is a 1995 law that requires criminals serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible to be considered for release.

In part one we heard how the law has impacted inmates and jails. In part two we looked at the law from the perspective of victims of crime. Now in our final installment we crunch the numbers for taxpayers. How much is this act costing you? What is the Truth in Sentencing Act costing you both in housing inmates and trying to rehabilitate them? We spoke with our next governor to see what he intends to do about it.

According to those that work in the industry, Virginia taxpayers are funding a flawed corrections system. Today, nearly 30,000 violent and nonviolent offenders sit in Virginia’s prisons and jails, and the cost to taxpayers keeps rising. Each prisoner cost about $29,000 to house in 2016, up almost 4 percent from 2015.

Taxpayers are spending close to $850 million for legislation that was put in place 20 years ago and is no longer bringing in federal grant money.

Virginia lawmakers say they passed the truth in sentencing guidelines in part because the state was going to receive money from the federal government as an incentive for being tough on crime. In 1996, the state received $1.2 million from the federal government toward a corrections budget of nearly $542 million.

Then, in 2001, the financial incentives for this law went away. The federal government stopped giving money to states that adhered to truth in sentencing guidelines.

In fact, last year, Virginia only received $135,000 toward a corrections budget that had nearly doubled to $1 billion. That monetary difference is now being made by the taxpayers.

Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail Superintendent Martin Kumer says having parole as an incentive for programming might help people stay off the streets by teaching them skills they need inside.

“Most of these guys think in terms of 'today,' and maybe tomorrow morning," Kumer said. "They don't think long term; that's one of the reasons why they're here. So to hang that over their head, you know, 25 years from now I’m gonna knock a couple months off the end of your sentence. They're like 'OK? Great.' But above that, to get these guys to become self-motivated, to participate in programming that will help them, that will benefit them, it would be nice to have that carrot.”

“No matter how good you are, you're just going to get the 85 percent,” Mary Anne Stone stated.

Stone is the vice chairwoman of the Richmond chapter of Virginia CURE - Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants. She has spent decades working to help prisoners re-enter society. The Department of Corrections says it aims to help with successful re-entry into society, but people familiar with the system say the DOC may be missing the mark.

“They depend too much on the inmates to do the release programs,” Stone said. “Well, if you've been locked up for 5 years, are you an expert on how to get out?”

Charlottesville native Thomas ‘Zulu’ Jackson saw this happened with inmates around him during his decades in and out of the prison system.

“They don't try," Jackson said. "They don't try because, like I said before, they're getting these grand long sentences. And they're like ‘OK, well, hey, I might as well get better at what I do illegally rather than to get better or try to do something legal.'"

Some feel the $5.9 million Virginia spent on rehabilitative programming last year could be better spent helping people on the outside.

“If we had some sort of programs that's already in place for these guys when they first get out,” Jackson said. “When they communicate with the outside, these guys is telling them, 'hey look man, I can't get a job, I can't get housing, clothing, food, so I’m doing this and I’m doing that so you're wasting your time in there, you know, trying the program because you ain't gonna have the opportunity when you get out, successful transition don't exist,'" Jackson said.

In 2015, Governor Terry McAuliffe established a Parole Review Commission to look at whether parole should be re-established. That group gave 23 recommendations but stopped short of recommending parole be reinstated.

Governor-elect Ralph Northam says he wants truth in sentencing to stay.

“I think there are a lot of things we can do to help keep people out of our jails and our prisons, but I don't support going back on parole," Northam said.

He says his emphasis will be on crime prevention and continuing the work of Governor McAuliffe in restoring felon rights.

“We’ve reinstated rights for over 156,000 Virginians," Northam said. "We believe very strongly that once an individual has paid back their time that was given to them by a judge or a jury, the best thing we can do for them to help them get back into society - get back into the workforce - is reinstate their voting rights."

Last month, the governor's office announced Virginia posted its lowest recidivism rate for the second-straight year. But these rates are on the decline across the country, not just in Virginia.

Some would argue fewer criminals on the street means fewer crimes, but one study by the Brennan Center for Justice shows the crime rate didn't budge after the year 2000, despite the state continuing the practice of putting more people in jail. The study shows the crime rate has little to do with our incarceration practices in the commonwealth.

Prevention techniques have had an affect on reducing crime. Those include the number of police officers, data-driven policing - that’s looking at statistics to predict high crime areas or times, people drinking less alcohol, changes in community incomes, and people aging.

If you're interested in learning more about the forms of parole, such as the oft-overlooked geriatric release, we will be updating this story as the parole system in Virginia changes and as we learn more about the topic.