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The bean counters at the Virginia Department of Corrections need to brush up on their math skills.
They've agreed to rent cells for 300 Wyoming criminals for $18.5 million over the next two years and are soliciting for up to 700 more.
The problem is that there are no empty cells. Virginia is incarcerating so many people that it must build a new prison each year until 2013 for the 1,000 extra inmates arriving each year.
Each new prison would cost about $100 million to build and an estimated $25 million annually to operate.
It's illogical to accept out-of-state prisoners when Virginia can't even house its own lawbreakers. But an illogical response is the best corrections officials could muster when faced with nonsensical instructions.
Most state agencies were ordered to cut their budgets this year because of slowing tax collections. That's especially hard for the prison system, which employs nearly 14,000.
Laying off prison guards while cramming more and more inmates into prison cells is dangerous. Bringing in out-of-state prisoners when there's no place to put them is only a slightly less-bad idea, but that's the difficult choice corrections leaders made this year.
And they had one other cost-cutting measure up their sleeves, which brings us to Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe. Norfolk's jail was built to hold 833 inmates, but there are more than 1,600 living there now. Seventy-two of them belong in prison, but the state hasn't seen fit to pick them up just yet.
Stuck at the bottom of the inmate pipeline, McCabe can't dump these inmates onto someone else. He can't fling the cell doors open and shout, "Be free!" He just copes with an overcrowded jail and hopes things get better.
Nearly every sheriff in Virginia is in the same predicament. More than 1,500 inmates who belong in state prisons are instead scattered among 66 local and regional jails waiting for space to become available. There's no motivation for the state to act quickly when a bed opens up. The state pays sheriffs $14 a day per inmate, but it costs McCabe $40 a day to provide food, medical care and security for each of his unwanted guests.
McCabe doesn't blame prison officials for his problems. Like him, they're just trying to make the best of a dire situation. The real culprits are state leaders, whose budget decisions fail to consider the broader impact on the criminal justice system.
"I don't think these legislators see the big picture," he said. "The people who make the policy decisions don't have to live with the results."
Gov. Tim Kaine also played a role in cutting the corrections budget this year, but he proposed $4.5 million to expand job training for people released from prison in an effort to reduce recidivism and probation violations. Legislators cut that ounce of prevention, saying they'd rather spend it on prisons.
And they will, many times over. The Department of Corrections expects more than 3,000 technical probation violators will be in prison for failing drug tests and other infractions by 2013. That's three of the six new prisons.
The math may make sense for legislators, but not for McCabe and not for local taxpayers, who will get stuck with the bill for overcrowded jails for many years to come.