Commonwealth’s Flawed Justice System Priorities Wasting Precious Resources

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Despite a recent report demonstrating a flawed justice system and skewed fiscal priorities, Virginia’s budget going into effect on July 1st includes over a billion dollars in general funds for the commonwealth’s corrections spending.

According to Billion Dollar Divide Virginia’s Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge, a recently released report by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), while other states are successfully reforming their sentencing laws, parole policies and drug laws, Virginia is lagging behind and spending significant funds that could be used more effectively to benefit public safety in the commonwealth.

Approximately 80 percent of the corrections budget is being spent on incarcerating people in secure facilities, while only about 10 percent of the budget is spent on supervising people in the community.  Other states have a better balance between prison spending, and supporting individuals in the community.

Billion Dollar Divide, the second in a series of JPI reports analyzing Virginia’s criminal justice priorities, describes challenges facing Virginia’s sentencing, corrections and criminal justice system, including:

  • Worrisome racial and ethnic disparities in how the state deals with drugs and drug crimes: African Americans make up approximately 20 percent of the Virginia population, but comprise 60 percent of the prison population, and 72 percent of all people incarcerated for a drug arrest. JPI has compiled information for the largest Virginia cities and counties that show the disparities in drug enforcement, and the latest data show Virginia’s drug arrest rates on the rise;

  • More people serving longer sentences and rising length-of-stay: The changes to Truth-in-Sentencing enacted in the 1990s eliminated parole, and reduced access to earned-time and good-time credits. The commonwealth has added more mandatory minimums that have lengthened prison terms, and about one quarter of all of Virginia’s mandatory minimum sentences involve drug offenses. Between 1992 and 2007, there has been a 72 percent increase in individuals serving time for drug offenses. There has also been a substantial and very expensive increase in the number of elderly individuals incarcerated in Virginia, despite strong evidence that these individuals pose little threat to public safety;

  • Challenges facing people impacted by the system getting a job, going to school, and integrating into their community: While Virginia has taken some positive steps by focusing more on having people successfully return to the community after having been incarcerated, there are more than 400,000 people with a felony conviction that places certain restrictions on where they might live, where they might work, their ability to get into school, and access support and opportunities that would reduce the likelihood of committing additional crimes.  

With the commonwealth spending over a billion general fund dollars on corrections, policymakers in Richmond should be scrutinizing current policies regarding sentencing, corrections spending and criminal justice policy, particularly as the state faces a budget shortfall.

“With Virginia now facing a budget shortfall, and having also failed to access Medicaid expansion funding, the commonwealth can’t afford to spend over a billion dollars on flawed corrections policies,” said Marc Schindler, Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute.

Several legislative bills failed 2014 that would have saved Virginia millions of dollars in corrections spending, spanning the domain of sentencing reform, earned release for people convicted of drug offenses, and parole reform.

To read Billion Dollar Divide: Virginia’s Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge, CLICK HERE. To read the first in the report series, Virginia’s Justice System: Expensive, Ineffective and Unfair, CLICK HERE. For additional information, please contact Zerline Hughes at [email protected].

The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C., is working to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system and promote policies that improve the well-being of all people and communities. For more JPI briefs on the criminal justice system, visit