Virginia re-incarceration rates lowest in country, but not everyone agrees with the numbers

The Commonwealth's recidivism rate is said to be about 23 percent

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For the third year in a row, Virginia's re-incarceration rate is the lowest in the country, according to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. 

According to a press release from the Office of the Governor, the recidivism rate for the Commonwealth is 23.4 percent, based on the number of offenders re-incarcerated within three years of their release from prison. 

But not everyone agrees that rate is accurate, including the Superintendent of the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Frederick County, James Whitley.

"If the recidivism in this state is so low, why are the jails still full? Why are the prisons still full?" he asked.

Whitley says he thinks the Virginia Department of Corrections numbers are so low because of local jails that house inmates that are supposed to be the Commonwealth's responsibility. He says he doesn't believe those inmates are counted in the D.O.C.'s data. 

"There's roughly 35,000 state inmates around the state that are in local jails," Whitley said, adding he has about 90 of those inmates in his jail. "Whose to say there's not some bean-counter with D.O.C. who's saying, 'No, we're not going to transfer this individual because that would hurt our recidivism numbers and we wouldn't be the best.'"

Virginia's Department of Corrections disputes Whitley's claims.

In an email, the Department's Director of Communications Lisa Kinney writes, "all state offenders, including those held in local and regional jails, are included in the recidivism numbers." 

Outside of the jails, Frederick County's Sheriff Lenny Millholland says he sees a difference since he first started three years ago. But he also points out that this year's re-incarceration rate of 23.4 percent is actually up from last year, which was 22.4 percent. 

He attributes that to the effects of the opioid crisis and says there has been improvement thanks in part to the success of the region's drug treatment efforts, such as the drug court treatment program run by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition and the NRADC's own 90-day treatment program.

Whitley agrees that many repeat offenders struggle with substance abuse and says that the community's commitment to treat addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing is making a difference.

"It used to be a 'lock 'em up' mentality, and now they realize that people need help," he said. "We realize that we have to give them skills to keep them from coming back."

But Whitley would prefer to see action, rather than accolades, from the Commonwealth. 

"They're not living up to their obligations as a state system. But they can go around and brag about how we have the lowest recidivism rates," he said. "So I really don't put much stock in it at all."

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