John Hamilton

The Convoluted Classification System for Offenders in the Virginia Dept. of Corrections by John Hamilton

As I approach another Annual Review, it reminds me how contrived the classification process is and whether improvements can be made. From what I’ve gathered after reviewing the established Departmental Operating Procedures (DOPs) governing the classification process it’s clear there’s been much debate. It’s my opinion from scrutinizing the policy more in depth that those responsible for its construction struggled reaching a consensus.

All of the policies regulating offender classification are clear that the Virginia Dept. of Corrections (VADOC) will utilize a point scale scoring instrument to determine an offender’s eligibility into any specific security level and ultimate facility placement. The two scales implemented are commonly referred to as your “initial” and “reclassification” security level scoring guides. The system is suppose to provide an accurate assessment of the security needs for any given offender.

The general rule for classification of offenders is to place them into appropriate security levels and assign them to facilities where offenders aren’t subjected to excessive control and management. The implemented scoring instruments take into consideration several factors: Severity of current offense, priors, escape history, length of time remaining, age, disciplinary actions, severity of most serious disciplinary report, and class level. The cumulative score shall determine your security level and facility placement eligibility.

Disappointingly, nothing associated with the VADOC, especially pertaining to classification, is capable of being so precise. In addition to the objective score, other considerations are factored into the assessed evaluation. The VADOC has established five mandatory restrictors that may be invoked if the overall score doesn’t adequately reflect the level of risk the offender may present in a reduced security level.

There are negative connotations associated with the implementation of mandatory restrictors which may have no actual bearing on the implied risk an offender may pose. What’s worse is if mandatory restrictors are not applicable to you, the VADOC may arbitrarily invoke a discretionary override, potentially raising concerns for abuse of discretion, for strictly biased or subjective reasoning, inflicting unnecessary prejudice. At what point does an offender’s model behavior supplant the preconceived notion concerning their conviction?

The composition of the Security Level Classification Procedure is obsolete, inadequate, and no longer suitable in conjunction with the existing point scale scoring instrument being utilized. It infringes on an offender’s ability to confront indiscriminate decisions based solely on personal preconceptions of one’s convictions, rather than, the offender’s progress, achievements, and overall disposition since being incarcerated. It’s common to hear offenders argue that their points validate where their security level should fall, only to be overrode by a mandatory restrictor or discretionary override by those in Richmond who fail to address the conundrum created by their own policy.

At some point there needs to be a focus placed more on the individual that recognizes the achievements and efforts made by offenders to rehabilitate themselves. Rehabilitation shouldn’t be limited to, much less only recognized for those offenders within five years of release. A conscious effort needs to be made in addressing rehabilitation for every offender. Without this emphasis, you create an environment rampant with anger and resentment. This indignation is directly attributable to the violence associated with prison.

To deny rehabilitative opportunities to those offenders eligible for parole or to ignore those with exorbitant sentences seems counter intuitive when parole and clemency present convincing opportunities for early release. How many offenders might receive greater consideration for early conditional release, had they only been able to participate in substantive therapeutic or rehabilitative programming? Instead, offenders with significant time are often denied the opportunity to participate in such vital programmatic activities that could directly influence the Virginia Parole Board or Governor to reconsider parole or clemency decisions.

The VADOC provides you an opportunity to appeal any classification decision through the offender grievance procedure but the way the security level classification procedure is written denies you any real alternative. The score ranges don’t represent your security level as implied, but rather, is established as a guide to aid in the classification process. But for any subjective reason the VADOC deems appropriate they can justify the invoking of a mandatory restrictor or discretionary override. The effect makes any formal grievance ineffective, depriving an offender any real argument to refute erroneous decisions.

For any grievance to be effective you have to be able to argue a substantive error or violation of policy. The classification policies state that any offender who scores within any security level may have their security level assignment changed on the basis of a mandatory restrictor or approved discretionary override for any reason. The existing classification policies are written in such an unscrupulous manner that any attempt to discredit the assessment will inevitably result in failure. The disingenuous language of the classification policies render nullification of any formal grievance.

In my humble opinion the classification DOPs require modification. The existing point scale instrument utilized is antiquated and rarely adhered to. If the score carries no significance, amend it, or remove it. The enormous latitude and discretion the VADOC has in assigning such arbitrary punitive enhancements raises legitimate concerns for abuse of the classification policies , both for subjective reasons and in order to meet operational objectives. In an environment where discretionary acts of abuse occur all too frequently, I’m merely looking for transparency in a policy that’s ripe for exploitation.

John E. Hamilton, #1442949
Virginia Dept. of Corrections
Nottoway Correctional Center
2892 Schutt Rd / P.O.Box 488
Burkeville VA 23922

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