Attorney General Mark Herring bolsters re-entry effort for Virginia jails

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Source - The Daily Press

Attorney General Mark R. Herring said Monday that he's begun new efforts to make it easier for inmates at jails across the state to re-enter society after serving their sentences.

The state has bolstered its re-entry programs in recent years at state prisons, but jails across the state — where inmates are held while awaiting trial and for punishments of less than a year — have been left out of those efforts, Herring's office said.

Up to now, sheriffs have relied on volunteers and church groups, as well as private donations and grants, to run programs on mental health and substance abuse, parenting and staying connected with families. But while some jails are forging strong partnerships, others "are still struggling to find the resources," Herring's office said.

The funding gap is significant because about half of the state's inmates are housed in jails. While the state prison system has about 30,000 inmates on any given day, local and regional jails have 29,000, according to numbers that Herring's office received from the Virginia Sheriffs' Association.

"That's where we're stepping in," said Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Herring. "The local jails are falling through the cracks in that they don't have access to state resources — yet they still have 29,000 people in their custody that are eventually going to get out."

Herring said he's creating a new state job — statewide re-entry coordinator — to work with local jails and sheriff's offices to help them better mesh with government agencies, nonprofits and faith-based organizations about job training and various kinds of treatment the inmates might need.

One particular area of focus is female inmates, who Herring says have largely been left out of the re-entry focus, he added.

"Common sense and compassion dictate that we do more to specifically offer transitional help to women inmates, who are in many cases the sole support for their children," Herring said. "The lack of support for women inmates as they are released has been a tragic oversight in Virginia."

In addition to the new coordinator position, Herring said he's creating an online "re-entry portal" to help sheriff's offices and local jails connect inmates with outside services. In the early stages, the site will provide "printable region-specific materials" that jails can give inmates when they check out to tell them where they can go for help.

Both the new coordinator and website, Herring said, can help to offset cost burdens on localities.

As the nation's prison population continues to grow in a time of routine budgetary crunches, many system reformers are calling for shifting the focus from strict punishment to reform and rehabilitation in many cases.

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, for example, successfully got more money for re-entry programs, though he was unsuccessful in pushing for a broad review of the judicial and prison system that would have included whether enough was being done to prepare inmates to assimilate back into society.

Herring said the program that began in recent years in state prisons provides individualized case management, treatment services, opportunities to develop work skills, and support networks both prior to release and immediately after. And still more than 40 percent of inmates are convicted of new crimes within three years, Herring said.

"The problems that lead to crime and a jail sentence, whether it's abuse, trauma, anger management or addiction, are usually still present in offenders' lives even after they serve their sentence," Herring said. But with individualized services, "a former inmate has a much better shot at success."

Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan, who runs the Newport News City Jail, lauded the announcement.

"Enacting tough laws and locking offenders up is only two legs of a three-legged stool," Morgan said in a statement released by Herring's office. "An effective re-entry program is an integral component to the public safety mission. 95% of all (offenders) will return to our communities. An effective re-entry program gives us an opportunity to reduce recidivism, victimization" and save money.

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, also praised the move in a statement released by Herring. She said the attorney general "is ensuring that sheriffs around the state have a resource that they can tap into to assist in the reduction of the inmate population and the transition from incarceration back into society. I applaud this action."

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