A bill that would have created more oversight for state prisons died in a House of Delegates committee this week, frustrating some advocates who were encouraged by its previous bipartisan support.
The bill would have created a committee consisting of four state legislators and 11 private citizens to monitor the Virginia Department of Corrections. The group would have held public hearings and submitted reports to the governor and General Assembly.
The committee also would have appointed an ombudsman to conduct inspections and handle concerns from prisoners, family members or the department’s employees.
The bill passed the Senate and the House Public Safety committee with unanimous support before Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee tabled it Monday with hardly any discussion.
“Clearly the governor’s office weighed in and told them to kill the bill,” Bobo said. “That’s how things happen sometimes, and it’s wrong. It’s absolutely wrong.”
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
At Monday’s meeting, Sen. Dave Marsden — who introduced the bill — told the committee that other states, like New Jersey, had success with similar legislation. He said Virginia had a “very sound” corrections department but would still benefit from oversight.
“Nothing really audits the quality of life for the inmates and for the officers who are having difficulties or experiencing problems,” said Marsden, D-Fairfax County.
The senator said he believed an ombudsman could help cut down on the $2 million the state pays for outside counsel to settle lawsuits each year.
One person spoke against the bill: In a brief statement, Jerry Fitz, a legislative liaison for the corrections department, asked the committee to reject the measure. He said it could end up being too costly.
“This bill, what it would create is another layer of government in terms of having oversight of the department,” Fitz said.
The committee voted along party lines to table the bill.
Several groups were backing the measure, including the interfaith center, Americans for Prosperity, the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
In a statement, the ACLU said the corrections department could not effectively police itself and that the committee’s vote was disappointing.
“We remain committed to working for safer conditions for incarcerated Virginians and a more transparent agency,” the organization stated. “The Commonwealth deserves no less.”
Katie King, [email protected]