Imagine pulling over at a highway rest stop to take a break, and seeing a convict planting flowers. It could happen someday soon in Virginia.
Bills allowing inmates to maintain Virginia's rest stops cleared both chambers Wednesday, but not without debate that doing so could hurt public safety and Virginia's image.
Many Democrats oppose the measure, which was first proposed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell last year when he reopened 19 rest stops statewide.
Inmates are already allowed to work along highways and at other jobs, including maintenance at the state Capitol.
"I would suggest there's a big difference in driving at 65 mph past a crew of convicts picking up trash on the shoulder of the highway and sharing your picnic lunch with them at a rest stop," said Del. Robert Brink, D-Arlington.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, argued that allowing inmates to work at rest stops could save the state significant money. The state currently contracts with private companies to provide the labor. If it employed inmates, it would pay the Department of Corrections $1.50 per hour.
Nothing in the bill would prohibit violent criminals or sex offenders from doing the work, which was a concern of some legislators. But the Department of Corrections only allows low security, nonviolent offenders to serve on work crews. An armed guard and a transportation worker trained to work with inmates would supervise the crews. Sen. Hanger also said the inmates would wear “distinguishable” attire, but not orange jumpsuits.
Legislators are also worried the move could hurt tourism, an important moneymaker for the state.
"I think we're being penny-wise and pound-foolish if we risk harm to our tourism industry," said Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond.
Each chamber's bill will now head to other for consideration.