RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — House Republicans killed a bill to increase oversight of Virginia prisons that passed the state Senate unanimously the week before.
The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines Monday to reject a bill from state Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) that aimed to establish a corrections ombudsman office.
Sen. Marsden commended the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC), pointing to the commonwealth’s record on recidivism — reoffense rate — but said he felt more could be done to bolster oversight of the state agency and prisons.
“While they [VADOC] have a number of groups that audit them and come in and look at things, nothing really audits the quality of life for the inmates and for the officers who are having difficulties, who are experiencing problems,” Marsden told the committee.
The independent ombudsman office proposed in the bill would provide information, assistance and advice to those incarcerated, monitor prison conditions and determine whether facilities were following laws to meet basic living standards.
Under the bill, the office would also set up “a statewide uniform reporting system” to collect and track data on prison complaints, deaths, suicides, assaults while in custody, the number of those in solitary confinement and more.
The bill would have created a Corrections Oversight Committee — a panel of 13 voting members including state lawmakers, advocates, people who were formerly incarcerated and more — to oversee the ombudsman office.
The oversight panel would also have two nonvoting members, either employed or formerly employed by a prison system, to serve as advisors. The bill called for the committee to hold quarterly public hearings and issue a yearly report on its findings.
“We would just say that this bill, what it would create is another layer of government, in terms of having oversight of the department,” Jerry Fitz, VADOC’s legislative liaison, said Monday in opposition of the bill.
Fitz also said the bill did not provide the salaries needed to fill the office or the oversight committee that would need to be created.
Marsden added that the Senate set aside $750,000 in the chamber’s proposed budget to create the ombudsman office. He said he felt the proposal would help “cut down” on the $2 million Virginia pays every year for outside counsel with the attorney general’s office to settle lawsuits.
The bill received support from the Virginia chapter of the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers, which advocates for correctional officers, and from Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers.
Citing the “concerns” of VADOC, Del. Terry L. Austin (R-Botetourt) made a motion to lay the bill on the table, which effectively kills it for this year’s legislative session. The panel voted 11-10 along party lines to approve the motion.
Before Monday’s vote, Marsden’s bill had advanced in the House after passing the Virginia Senate 39-0 on Feb. 6.