Division of Legislative Services > Legislative Record > 2005

HJR 273: Joint Subcommittee Studying Prisoner Reentry Into Society

October 12, 2005

The Joint Subcommittee Studying the Commonwealth's Program for Prisoner Reentry into Society held its third meeting on October 12, 2005, at the Prison Fellowship facility located at 44180 Riverside Parkway in Lansdowne, Virginia.


Prison Fellowship/Justice Fellowship
Pat Nolan, is the Vice President of the Prison Fellowship, and also serves as President of the Prison Fellowship's criminal justice reform arm, Justice Fellowship. The organization's focus is to ensure that offenders are better prepared to live healthy, productive, and law-abiding lives upon their release from prison. Mr. Nolan is working with a number of states and Congress. He stated that a broad coalition of political, economic, and religious groups has been working at the federal level on the Second Chance Act (HR 1704). This legislation seeks to strengthen families of inmates and improve the provision of services to inmates returning to society. Mr. Nolan stated that to strengthen families the bill will:

  • Encourage community nonprofit organizations and churches to mentor adult and juvenile offenders.
  • Rewrite regulations to encourage family preservation and safety services for families affected by the incarceration of family members.
  • Allow family members of offenders to be involved in facilitating the successful reentry of offenders into their communities.
  • Encourage expansion of family-based treatment centers that offer comprehensive treatment.
  • Develop prisoner and family policies, procedures, or programs to help prisoners reconnect with their families and communities.
  • Encourage states to remove obstacles to the maintenance of family relationships while the offender is in custody.

To assist state and federal governments in the improvement of their reentry programs the bill will:

  • Encourage the states to coordinate their programs that assist inmates to find jobs, housing, and substance abuse and mental health treatment and assist their children and families.
  • Establish the National Offender Re-Entry Resource Center to help states, local governments, services providers, faith-based organizations, corrections agencies, and community organizations by collecting and disseminating information about best practices.
  • Coordinate federal programs and resources on reentry and identify federal barriers that exist to successful reentry.
  • Conduct research to provide hard data about reentry on which decisionmakers can design their programs.

Mr. Nolan recommended that the joint subcommittee keep the following concepts in mind as it works to improve Virginia's reentry programs.

  1. The goal of our criminal justice system is to create safer communities and reduce the number of victims. There is a tendency in many criminal justice systems to focus on institutional safety and convenience, rather than community safety. Encouraging inmates to participate in programs and interact with community volunteers may increase the risk that security will be compromised, but it also greatly increases the probability that the inmates will make a successful reentry after release.
  2. Reentry planning should start at intake. Decisions on prison assignments should include factors such as the proximity of the prison to the inmate's family and the availability of needed programs.
  3. Programs are important, but healthy relationships are even more important. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency studied three Intensive Aftercare Programs and found that the programs "did not have an influence on recidivism." According to Mr. Nolan, the programs lacked one element that Prison Fellowship has found essential to successful reentry-a relationship with a loving mentor who will assist the offender during the critical first few months of freedom.
  4. Encourage inmates to participate in faith-based programs. If inmates are to live healthy, productive, and law-abiding lives when they return to their communities, we must equip them with moral standards to live by.
  5. Develop graduated sanctions for violations of terms of release.
  6. The community should "own" reentry. For reentry programs to be successful, community groups and churches should be viewed as partners with the state, not as mere auxiliaries.

Virginia Serious and Violent Offender Re-Entry (VASAVOR)
Lesley Bubenhofer, Chief Probation and Parole Officer for District #29 with the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC), spoke about the Virginia Serious and Violent Offender Re-Entry (VASAVOR) initiative. With grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies, DOC implemented in July 2002 a reentry program for serious and violent offenders in Fairfax in collaboration with the Fairfax County Office of the Sheriff, Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR), the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (CSB), and the Northern Virginia Workforce Investment Board. Inmates who have been convicted of the following felony offenses will be considered for VASAVOR: capital murder, homicide (1st or 2nd degree), manslaughter, abduction/kidnapping, sexual assault/rape, robbery, assault, and weapons charges. Offenders who have a serious and violent offense conviction and an acceptable release plan in Fairfax will be considered for the VASAVOR program if they have a parole, probation, or post-release supervision obligation. VASAVOR programming includes education, vocational training, employment assistance, residential assistance, and mental health and substance abuse assessment and treatment. The VASAVOR initiative provides essential services and intensive supervision and consists of three phases.

Phase I-Goal: Participant assessment and reentry planning
During Phase I, potential VASAVOR inmates are identified by DOC's staff and reviewed by the VASAVOR Suitability Assessment Team and suitable participants commence programming within the institution. A reentry plan is implemented and data is forwarded by DOC to Fairfax that includes information concerning the inmate's institutional adjustment, existing educational and employment skills, and any special needs.

The VASAVOR participant is transferred to the Fairfax Adult Detention Center (ADC) where he meets his probation/parole officer and the VASAVOR Transition Team (Team) members. The Team consists of probation and parole officers, an OAR case manager, a Workforce Investment Board Job Developer, a mental health therapist, and other service providers as appropriate. A community reentry plan is developed by the Team.

Programming is provided for VASAVOR participants in the ADC during an approximate 45-day transitional period by the OAR and CSB on anger management, conflict resolution, impact of crime, thinking straight skills, basic computer skills, and financial planning. Other skill-based classes and faith-based programs are also available. A release and supervision plan is developed with the offender and the Team.

Phase II-Goal: Individual/community support system establishment
In Phase II, the VASAVOR participant is released to the community under intensive supervision. The Team coordinates community-based services and supervises to ensure the participant's issues (housing, employment, family obligations, health care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, etc.) are being addressed as he reintegrates into the community. Violation of supervision guidelines results in the application of a system of graduated sanctions.

Phase III-Goal: Productivity and responsibility achieved
In Phase III, the VASAVOR participant achieves self-sufficiency with his own support system, including family, mentors, and peer support groups.

Ms. Bubenhofer introduced two VASAVOR Team members: Don M. Needels, Intensive Supervision Program Senior Probation Officer with DOC, and Heather Venner, VASAVOR case manager with OAR of Fairfax. Mr. Needels discussed a typical day with VASAVOR participants. A VASAVOR participant, Vincent Jones, discussed his experience with VASAVOR and stated that he believes he would be back in jail without this program.

National Governors Association
Finally, Thomas MacLellan of the National Governors Association (NGA) spoke on the national challenge of prisoner reentry. He stated that state corrections expenditures have grown 538% since 1982-an annual average growth of 9.9%. States spent an estimated $40.7 billion on corrections in 2004. According to Mr. MacLellan, Virginia's estimated corrections expenditures in 2004 were $1.06 billion. Mr. MacLellan reported that, "Effective policies save money and make better use of limited resources by establishing a more coordinated and comprehensive continuum of care and supervision. Even small reductions in recidivism rates will generate substantial cost-savings by avoiding more costly reincarceration."

Mr. MacLellan noted the following challenges to successful reentry:

  • Uncoordinated service systems.
  • Cuts in funding for prison programs.
  • Systemic and legal barriers (e.g., bans to public assistance and housing, difficulty obtaining state-issued identification).
  • Lack of sentencing options and alternative sanctions.

Building on the work of NGA's Prisoner Reentry Policy Academy and the Council of State Governments' (CSG) Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council, Mr. MacLellan suggested these strategies to initiate long-term improvements:

  • Develop an interagency approach-reentry is not only a corrections issue.
  • Improve the process through which individuals are sent to prison (e.g., expand community-based treatment, improve parole revocation policies).
  • Improve how prisoners are prepared in prison for release (e.g., begin reentry planning early, improve use of risk and assessment tools, and improve access to service providers and faith-based organizations).
  • Improve how prisons release prisoners.
  • Build on key social and family relationships and ensure local connections of inmates.
    Ensure that prisoners have transitional or temporary jobs.
  • Ensure a continuum of care for high-need individuals with health, mental health, and substance abuse issues.
  • Target highly affected communities and locate services in those communities.
  • Form partnerships with local law- enforcement agencies.

Additional information on these strategies can be found on the NGA website at http://www.nga.org. (Search under Issues: Criminal Justice-Prisoner Reentry for the Issue Brief, Improving Prisoner Reentry Through Strategic Policy Innovations)

The joint subcommittee's final meeting date is November 15, 2005, at 10:00 a.m. in Richmond at the General Assembly Building.

The Hon. Linda T. Puller

For information, contact:
Amy Marschean, DLS Staff



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