Republicans are denouncing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s efforts to study whether Virginia’s no parole policies, in effect since 1995, should be eased.
Among the most vocal critics is state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2013. Here’s what he said during a July 21 radio interview on WRVA in Richmond.
"We’ve been studying this for the past 20 years and we’ve got great experience and shown that this whole truth-in-sentencing movement actually works, and what the governor is doing is messing with success. Our crime rate has dropped to, what, third lowest in the country; our recidivism rate is down by 20 percent, and that’s the second lowest in the country. The governor just doesn’t need to do this."
Virginia’s no-parole policy -- a legacy of former Gov. George Allen, a Republican who served from 1994 to 1998 -- requires that criminals serve at least 85 percent of their prison sentences. McAuliffe, a Democrat, says he’s not talking about easing the program for violent offenders. But the governor has appointed a bipartisan commission to explore whether there are better ways to handle thousands of non-violent inmates, particularly drug offenders.
The governor’s action is sure to be an issue this fall when all General Assembly seats are up for election. So we decided to see whether Obenshain’s statistics on the drop in crime and recidivism rates since the advent of no-parole hold up.
Obenshain said his information that Virginia has the third lowest crime rate came from a staff briefing on parole reform given to the Senate Finance Committee last November. The PowerPoint presentation cited statistics from the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report dating back to 1994 -- the year before no-parole went into effect.
One slide said Virginia had the third lowest violent crime rate in 2013 -- the most current year available -- and called it a "significant improvement" from 1994, when the state ranked 14th.
The ranking, however, needs some context. Violent crime has been has been waning throughout the U.S. in recent decades. Nationally, 714 people out of every 100,000 were violent crime victims in 1994; that dropped 368 in 2013, a 48.4 percent decrease. In Virginia, 358 people per 100,000 were victims in 1994. That dropped to 188 in 2013, a 47.4 percent decrease.
In other words, Virginia’s decline in violent crime rates is consistent with national trends. The Powerpoint slide that Obenshain cites does not connect Virginia’s decrease to no-parole. To the contrary, it contains this caveat: "There are many factors involved in the national drop in crime rates over the last two decades, many of which are not unique to Virginia."
The FBI also compiles property crime rates. Virginia has also seen a decline in this category that is consistent with U.S. trends. Nationally, 4,660 people out of every 100,000 were property crime victims in 1994. That fell to 2,732 in 2013, a 41.4 percent decrease. In Virginia, 3,690 per 100,000 were victims in 1994, and that dropped to 2,066 in 2013, a 44 percent decline.
Obenshain also cited the Finance Committee briefing last November as his source for claiming that Virginia’s recidivism rate has dropped by 20 percent and is the second lowest in the nation.
A slide in the presentation said, "Virginia’s rate has dropped from 28 percent for offenders released in (fiscal year) 2004 to 22.9 percent for those released in (fiscal) 2009. Virginia has the second lowest recidivism rate among the states that have a comparable measure. Virginia had the eighth lowest recidivism rate for offenders released in 2004."
The figures come from the Virginia Department of Corrections. You may have noticed that the drop between the years Obenshain cites is 5.1 percentage points. But you have to pay close attention to language. The decrease from 28 to 22.9 is an 18.2 percent drop, which the senator rounds to 20 percent.
Virginia’s computes its recidivism rate by calculating the percentage of of inmates who are returned to prison for committing new crimes within three years of their original release. DOC records show the rate was 25.4 percent for prisoners released in 1992 -- three years before no parole began. So the decrease in the rate since the advent of the policy is about 10 percent -- or half the figure Obenshain offered.
Now, let’s discuss Virginia’s national ranking. The DOC has distributed a chart showing that Virginia’s 22.9 percent for prisoners released in 2009 was the second lowest in the nation. There are no national standards for computing recidivism rates. DOC uses the three-year recidivism rates other states publish.
Tama Celi, statistical analysis and forecast unit manager for DOC, the Virginia Department of Corrections, said the footnoted chart does not offer an apples-to-apples comparison. The years for each state’s recidivism rate vary, she said, and different states have different criminal laws defining thresholds for violations. "The states are measuring their own criminal justice systems and laws," she said.
Two experts on recidivism told us comparing state numbers has little value. They noted that states have different ways of defining three-year recidivists. Some like Virginia, with lower rates, require a high standard of a former inmate being sent back to prison. Others, with higher rates, require lower standards for recidivism such as being convicted or arrested for a crime.
"You want to believe these crime statistics are solid, but they really don’t tell you much," said Danielle Rudes, a professor of criminology at George Mason University. "To me, they don’t offer any evidence that Virginia’s abandonment of discretionary release has been successful. They don’t offer any evidence to the contrary, either."
Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project and The Pew Charitable Trusts, agreed. "On the surface, it seems like recidivism rates are a straightforward issue but, in reality, it’s fraught with complexity," he said.
Gelb directed a Pew effort several years ago to equate all state recidivism rates by a standard formula. The study found that Virginia had a 28.3 percent, three-year recidivism rate for prisoners released in 2003. That ranked fifth among the 41 states that cooperated.
The study broke down recidivists into two categories -- those who returned to jail for committing new crimes and those who went back for violations such as breaking parole or probation conditions.
Virginia’s recidivism rate for new crimes was 23 percent, which ranked 28th among 41 states. Its recidivism rate for technical reasons was 5 percent -- the fifth lowest among the states.
Obenshain says that since parole abolition, "Our crime rate has fallen to third lowest in the country, our recidivism rate is down 20 percent and that’s the second lowest in the country.’
Virginia’s violent crime rate did drop to the nation’s third lowest in 2013. The recidivism rate is a stickier issue. It fell by 10 percent over the last 20 years -- half of what Obenshain said. And the No. 2 national ranking, released by Virginia’s DOC, is fraught problems because different states compute their recidivism rates in vastly different ways.
But on the whole, crime trends have gone down in Virginia and we rate Obenshain’s statement Mostly True.