Two bills that aimed to restore independent oversight to Virginia’s prison system failed this year, but lawmakers agreed to study the ideas and their potential cost before they reconvene in 2022.
“This really is a blind spot for our prisons,” said Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington. “We have oversight for our local and regional jails, but not our prisons, and we need to figure out a way to deal with that blind spot.”
Hope had proposed legislation that would have created an independent ombudsman to investigate complaints and conduct regular inspections of state facilities. In the Senate, Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, had proposed a bill that would have restored oversight duties to the Board of Corrections.
They cited repeated civil rights lawsuits that have led to costly settlement agreements.
The legislation died in part due to concerns over the potential cost of the proposals. The Virginia Department of Corrections had informed Hope they had estimated his legislation would cost $11 million to implement — a price tag he derided in committee meetings as an unsubtle attempt to kill the legislation without openly opposing it.
The department told lawmakers it had no position on the bill.
After the legislation failed, members of the General Assembly tucked language in the state’s revised budget directing Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran to convene a workgroup studying the idea.
Hope, who chairs the House’s Public Safety Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that he remains concerned the Department of Corrections will derail the work group, which he said he hoped would start from the assumption that more oversight is necessary and focus its work on how to provide it at a reasonable cost.
“I don’t think (DOC) should have a voice,” he said. “They obviously have the most to lose.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct a reference to Del. Patrick Hope’s district. He represents part of Arlington.