Virginia Parole System Scrutinized After Covid Missteps

The Virginia Capitol building on a chilly January morning. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia Republican legislators are pushing for new transparency requirements in the state’s parole system after the agency tasked with doling out the rare reward for good behavior made several missteps during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

But conversations about the state’s parole system, technically abolished in the ’90s as part of a nationwide tough on crime movement, are being welcomed by those on the left, now in control of the state’s legislative and executive branches, who have long desired changes to the system. 

The GOP effort, lead by state Senators Mark Obenshain of Rockingham and David Suetterlein of Roanoke, started when local media reported on parole grants that failed to meet the state’s bare minimum notice requirements for victims’ families and the law enforcement agencies who helped put the formerly incarcerated behind bars. 

After legislators asked for an inquiry into the alleged failures, the state’s investigative agency released a heavily redacted report that only further frustrated the process. 

An unredacted version was eventually released and Suetterlein said its findings were “shocking.” 

It showed allegations the Virginia Parole Board violated state and board policies and procedures regarding the release of DOC a specific offender were sustained, and the Senator argues some of the violations could have been avoided if the board was subject to FOIA requirements.  

“I’m not aware of any other board or commission in the state where the votes aren’t public,” said the Roanoke legislator. To that end he’s proposed legislation that specifically requires the collection and release of this information such as meeting minutes and recorded votes that lead to a parolee’s release. 

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the independent state FOIA watchdog group Virginia Coalition for Open Government, welcomed Suetterlein’s effort. 

“We generally believe if you are a government or tax-payer supported organization, then your work should be subject to some level of scrutiny and accountability,” Rhyne said in a phone interview, noting that the board makes decisions on behalf of the people while also impacting those they represent. 

This is actually the second time Suetterlein pitched such legislation — a version was submitted during a recent three-month special session, and it passed the Senate but failed to get a vote in the House. 

Rhyne pointed to previous legislation, authored in 2017 by Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope of Arlington, which required the board’s guidance documents to be subject to FOIA and succeeded

“There was opposition to this from people who had expressed support for Hope’s 2017 effort,” Ryne said of the recent effort’s failure while avoiding drawing political connections to the 2020 snub. 

Obenshain’s complaints about the board are a bit broader, but they, too, include transparency measures that failed to impress House members when he submitted a similar bill to his 2021 effort alongside Suetterlein’s. He wants to see the charges, amount of time served, reason for parole and other information released with every grant of parole. 

“The parole board has claimed it’s someone else’s fault, but this legislation aims to make clear whose responsibility it is until appropriate notifications have been made,” said the senator. “This bill places this responsibility on the Department of Corrections, not the parole board.”

Tonya Chapman took over as chair of the Virginia Parole Board in March. The former police chief responded to legislators’ criticisms in a letter in October where she admitted “a limited number of individuals granted discretionary parole or geriatric conditional release by VPB had their release date set prior to the Commonwealth’s Attorney notification requirements being met.” 

But she also pointed to the haphazard nature of the release as part of the system’s way of addressing coronavirus outbreak concerns as the virus spread rapidly in prisons in Virginia and across the country. 

“Unusual circumstances created during early responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with a transition in VPB leadership in mid-April, highlighted several areas in policy, procedure, and Virginia Code that required additional clarity to improve the VPB’s 21-day notification process,” she said. 

Still, for family members of victims, any kind of release, let alone a flawed one, reopens old wounds. 

“The reason I have been able to live my life as fully as I have is because a serial killer that raped and murdered my sister and four other women is behind bars,” Sarah McClelland told the Roanoke Times in August when the GOP senators’ effort was up for debate during a recent special session. “How would I be able to feel safe in my community knowing that this monster who has never expressed remorse was free to roam the streets to kill again?”

But those who’ve been on the punitive side of the Virginia justice system see things differently. 

“Those of us with violent offenses, we didn’t see a lot of hope but we still pressed forward to improve ourselves,” said Willie Brown, a formerly incarcerated Virginian who entered the system at age 14 after he was accused of murder. He attempted to escape during his trial which led to the death of a prison guard, compounding his offense. 

He entered prison in 1983 and was finally released in 2018 thanks to a release program spearheaded by Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat. Brown said he spent his 35 years and 11 months trying to improve himself and worked with younger newly incarcerated folks to try and help them get on the straight and narrow. 

“Older prisoners told me you have to go out better than when you came in so you can help your family when you’re out some day,” he said, noting he left two children at home when he was locked up. 

Since his release Brown has stayed the course and used his experience in the parole system to advocate for those still inside.

Since his release Brown has used his experience with the parole system to take on a leadership role with the National Action Network, a group that specializes in advocating for those still inside, where he chairs the Criminal Justice Committee.

He might be in luck as criticism over the state’s parole system is not a single party issue, however the end goals are quite different. 

Democrats have long taken issue with the programs near abolition, signed into law by  Republican Governor George Allen in 1994 as part of a nationwide “truth in sentencing” effort which required inmates to serve large majorities of their sentences as opposed to an earned good-time release program that existed previously. 

The new system led to rapidly increased incarceration rates, tax-payer funded prison projects, and lasting impacts on those, sometimes in their teens like Brown, who were burdened with seemingly endless sentences. 

“We’re a nation of second chances, and people ought to have a second chance,” Senator John Edwards of Roanoke told the Washington Post in defense of his effort, after submitting legislation earlier this year that aimed to roll back the 25-year-old ban. 

The effort failed, but another bill that addressed so-called Fishback parole. This program — named after the plaintiff in a Virginia Supreme Court opinion that addressed those sentenced to life after parole’s abolition but without proper jury instruction — passed. 

In an email, Chapman said Virginia’s Department of Corrections had identified 549 inmates eligible under the new Fishback law but only 14 have been granted parole “thus far” since Northam signed the effort into law in April.

Energy to address the system more broadly exists in the House as well. Delegate Jay Jones, a Norfolk Democrat, who’s gunning for the state’s attorney general’s chair next year, has a unique connection to the effort. His father, Delegate Jerrauld Jones, was in the Legislature in the ’90s when parole was abolished, but the senior Jones voted against it. 

“My father had serious concerns about the policy, but also with the money being spent,” he said, pointing to the millions of dollars spent on a handful of prisons the state built in the wake of parole’s demise. 

And despite the failure of Senator Edwards’ effort, the junior Jones is hopeful the 2021 session will open the door to real parole reform for the first time. 

“Now, more than 25 years on, I think it’s worth examining reinstating,” he said.

But any such effort is sure to be met with pushback from both chambers’ Republican members. 

“Sentences should be upheld by what the jury or judge made,” said Suetterlein. “The folks being kept locked up have done some of the most serious crimes.”

Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, was unsurprised by the right’s effort to hammer Northam and Democrats over the board’s missteps. 

“Politically, it’s worked well for them in the past,” he said, pointing to the years with former Governor Allen in charge and the decades of GOP control that followed. He also said parolees are not exactly sympathetic subjects to most voters. Combine that with modern political tribalism and the parole boards errors and you get a perfect open wound for the minority party to pour salt on. 

And as for any parole-reform efforts from either side actually making it to Northam’s desk in 2021, a year when all 100 of the state’s House of Delegates seats are up for grabs, Farnsworth is less optimistic there, too. 

“The difficulty of legislating in an election year is apparent to both incumbent parties,” he said about the dangers of taking bold steps when your district seat is on the line. “Fuller resolution of both parties’ agenda items in this area will probably wait till 2022 when seats aren’t up for grabs.” 

Virginia legislators start their 2021 General Assembly Session Jan. 13, 2021.

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