A tool developed to make room for hardened criminals in Virginia prisons has revealed low-risk offenders are being sent to prison instead of being diverted to community-based programs. Prison cells that should be reserved for violent criminals are now used for non-risky offenders, leading to prison overpopulation.
The tool is a questionnaire known as Virginia’s Nonviolent Risk Assessment (VNRA). The results of the questionnaire tool will be given at the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission.
According to the Virginia Criminal Justice Policy Reform Project of the University of Virginia School of Law, thousands of low-risk offenders are turned into prisons while high-risk offenders are diverted to community programs.
Many Virginia State Judges Who Ought To Pay Attention to the VNRA Do Not
Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, noted that Virginia remains a national model for offender risk assessment. The unfortunate thing however is that thousands of low risk offenders who are eligible for alternative sentences are not getting it.
Garrett also added that while many courts favor lower or alternative sentencing, many judges do not. This leads to mass incarceration within the state.
The report found that many judges who support figuring the risk of future crime into sentences are largely the ones that do not consult the VNRA. This leads to over-incarceration and it hurts society.
The Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission was established by the Virginia General Assembly. The purpose of the commission among other things is to create a risk assessment instrument for alternative sentencing for low-risk, non-violent offenders. Rather than sentence this category of offenders to prison terms, the VNRA tool will be used to hand them alternative sanctions such as –
- Conditional release
- Community service
- Addiction or mental health treatment
- Electronic monitoring, etc…
Judges Consult VRNA Form to Determine Appropriate Level of Sentencing for Offenders
Having implemented the VNRA tool in 2002, Virginia aims to reserve prison cells for dangerous and repeat criminals who would need them for longer incarceration. While minor offenders are given alternative sentences such as those listed above. To this extent, VNRA considers certain factors before a minor offender is handed non-prison sanctions. Some of these factors include –
- Background of offender
- Former convictions
- Other factors
These factors are used to determine whether an offender is low-risk or high-risk on VNRA forms. And based on judicial experience and state guideline for criminal sentencing, Virginia judges use the VNRA form to issue appropriate sentences to offenders.
According to the VNRA report, 8,443 offenders were qualified for assessment into VNRA as at June 30, 2017.