Long-held inmates sue Virginia parole board for release

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Virginia abolished parole for convicted criminals in 1995. But more than 6,000 prisoners remain who were arrested prior to 1995, a new lawsuit alleges, and the state parole board denies release to more than 96 percent of them each year.

Eleven Virginia inmates filed the class-action lawsuit, asking a federal judge in Richmond to declare the parole board's actions unconstitutional, require it to conduct meaningful reviews of each inmate's case and devise rules for fair parole review. All the plaintiffs are convicted murderers, mostly in their 50s and 60s, some of whom have served more than 30 years and who continue to have strong family support, their attorneys said.

Parole Board Chairman Helen F. Fahey said yesterday that she could not discuss a pending lawsuit. But she told The Washington Post last year that "the idea that we don't study every case is not true. The main reason that every one of these people is still incarcerated is because of the violent crime they committed. Public safety has got to be the primary consideration when considering their release."

The case will be heard by U.S. District Court Senior Judge Robert E. Payne in Richmond.

Abolishing parole became a campaign issue in the 1993 governor's race, with candidate George Allen making it one of his priorities. The General Assembly eliminated parole in 1994, effective the next year, for crimes committed after Jan. 1, 1995.

Statistics show that in 1989, 42 percent of those considered for parole received it. Another study found that in 1993, violent offenders in Virginia were serving only 38 percent of the imposed lengths of their sentences.

But starting in 1995, the parole board began implementing practices "that had the intent and/or effect of abolishing parole retroactively," according to the lawsuit filed by lawyers with the Richmond firm of Troutman Sanders, the Legal Aid Justice Center of Charlottesville and Arlington County attorney William R. Richardson Jr.

The lawsuit alleges that the parole board discarded a "risk assessment tool" to be used in evaluating an inmate for release and that it repealed its general rules governing parole in 1998 "and has never replaced them."

Instead, the board devised a policy manual that has 14 factors to consider in whether to parole an inmate, such as the severity of the original offense, the effect of the release on public safety, the inmate's personal history and experience in prison.

But the board almost always cites the "serious nature and circumstances of the crime" in making its "virtually automatic and repeated denials," the lawsuit claims, "even when the other factors in the manual and the statute would favor release."

From fiscal 2002 through fiscal 2008, the lawsuit alleges, the parole rate for inmates convicted of violent offenses ranged from 3.7 percent to as low as 2.1 percent.

"We honestly don't know why," said Richmond lawyer Stephen A. Northup, one of the lead plaintiffs' attorneys. "We fully expect them to come in and say they consider all the factors. But the evidence indicates otherwise."

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