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VA Jails Sue State Prisons

On 30 January 1995, the sheriffs of Arlington, Alexandria and Richmond filed a lawsuit to force the state to remove its prisoners from their jails. The suit was filed in circuit court in Richmond. It says the Virginia DOC is violating a state law that says people convicted of felonies and sentenced to at least three years not be kept in jails for longer than 60 days.

Spokespersons from the DOC and the attorney general's office declined to comment on the suit. Similar suits have also been filed in other counties, including Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Hampton.

Arlington sheriff Thomas Faust said the suit was not filed to make a political statement. But then went on to say, "The legislators need to be aware now, particularly with the abolition of parole, that they have to give us the means to handle it [jail overcrowding]."

The court action was filed as the VA General Assembly considered several new "get tough on crime" bills in their 1995 session. In 1994 the VA legislature passed a law that abolishes parole. [See: PLN, Vol. 5 No. 12]  The law, which took effect January 1, 1995, increases sentences by 100% for violent first-time offenders and 300% - 700% for repeat offenders. Those convicted under the new law will serve a minimum of 85% of their sentences.

Statewide, the number of convicted prisoners held in local jails who should have been already transferred to state prisons increased from about 1,780 to more than 2,300 between Sept. 22 and Dec.1, and the increases will continue.  Sheriff Faust complains that the VA DOC reimburses the county $14 per inmate/day for jailing state prisoners, while it costs the county about $70 per day to house each one.

Despite what Faust says, it's apparent that the suit sends a clear political message: "If politicians in the state house want to pass more 'get tough' laws... they'll have to start finding ways to pay for them without passing the costs on to the counties." The counties are not willing to bear the cost of the burgeoning prison population growth that results from opportunistic, irresponsible legislation.

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