Jason Michael Garrison spends his days learning carpentry and his nights dreaming of the future. He is 19 and a murderer, and by the time he gets out of prison--in 2017 at the earliest--his young daughter will be older than he is now.
Such is the fate of a violent criminal in Virginia since parole was abolished five years ago under the law-and-order agenda of then-Gov. George Allen (R). Violent criminals are serving more of their sentences and more total time behind bars.
Garrison helped stab a younger boy 60 times with a screwdriver before dumping his body into a Springfield pond in 1995. For that first-degree murder, he can expect to spend three times longer in prison than was common before.
Architects of the approach predicted it would mean less violent crime as the state locked up a hard core of miscreants and kept them there. And on the fifth anniversary of abolishing parole, proponents of the sweeping change to Virginia's sentencing system are declaring victory, claiming that the change has made streets safer.
Allen, eager to make the issue central to his campaign for the U.S. Senate this year, touts such results on his campaign Web site.
But criminologists and federal crime data paint a more complicated picture that raises questions about what link--if any--exists between parole abolition and declining crime in Virginia.
Since parole was abolished, the state's violent crime rate has dropped 9 percent, but in the same years Maryland, which kept parole, has seen its rate drop 16 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis of FBI crime statistics.
The decline in Virginia's violent crime rate has also lagged behind the nation's, which dropped 21 percent over the same time, the analysis shows. It also shows that the recent declines in Virginia's violent crime rate began in 1993, two years before parole was abolished.
"Most criminologists would say a parole change five years ago is not likely to be a major contributor to a reduction in crime," said Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Alfred Blumstein.
He and other criminologists attribute declining crime mainly to the historic economic expansion, improved policing and the dwindling popularity of crack cocaine, which fueled the crime surge of the 1980s. Studies rarely show that changing sentencing policy reduces crime, they say.
Other than its uncertain effect on crime, parole abolition has worked much as its architects hoped. And critics' fears that it would cause crowding and unrest in prisons have not materialized. Twenty-two states have abolished parole, and Virginia has seen few of the problems experienced elsewhere.
Judges have embraced revamped sentencing guidelines. Expensive, secure prison cells are used increasingly to house violent felons instead of nonviolent offenders. And the cost of prison construction--the biggest expense of parole abolition--has been less than one-third of the $900 million once projected, thanks to the slowing of prison population growth, say legislative analysts.
Virginia prisons now house more than 30,000 criminals. A prison-building boom has added so much excess capacity that the number includes nearly 3,600 inmates under contract from the District, the federal prison system and five other states. Housing Virginia prisoners costs the state $17,350 a year per prisoner.
Architects of parole abolition argue that their clearest success was in making the system more just. Regardless of its effect on crime, the changes in sentencing have meant longer and more predictable prison terms for murderers, rapists and robbers.
"What is the justice of a murderer going out after eight years? How do you explain that to the family?" asked Mark C. Christie, a policy adviser during Allen's administration. "A justice system needs to be just. . . . I think it was a success on Day One on that ground."
Yet a key argument for parole abolition was the expected impact on the violent crime rate. Backers, such as Allen, contended that abolishing parole would prevent 26,000 violent crimes over 10 years because the would-be offenders would already be behind bars.
The argument marked a shift in sentencing philosophy from punishing past crimes to preventing future ones. And though it troubled civil libertarians, Allen and his allies argued that since most serious crimes are committed before offenders reach their mid-twenties, violent felons should be locked up younger and kept behind bars longer.
Five years later, as Allen gears up for his challenge to U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb (D), he can rattle off statistics on Virginia's dropping crime. He said he's more certain than ever that parole abolition coupled with revamped sentencing guidelines worked.
Virginia has sentenced 75,000 criminals under the new system, including 15,000 violent felons. Some of those now behind bars would have committed other serious crimes, he said.
"This is just very practical, common sense logic," said Allen. "If they are in prison, they are not out murdering, raping or viciously assaulting."
When Allen came into office, the state's parole board was letting violent felons out of prison after serving as little as one-third of their sentences. Repeat rapists were getting out in less than seven years. Second-degree murderers could expect to walk away in less than five years if they didn't have prior convictions.
A first-degree murderer such as Garrison, who had no prior convictions under the adult sentencing system, would likely have been paroled after 12 1/2 years in prison. With good behavior he might have fulfilled his sentence of nearly 24 years in about eight, emerging before his 26th birthday.
"From a judge's perspective, there was something wrong with the old system," said F. Bruce Bach, chief judge of Fairfax County Circuit Court. "When you gave somebody a sentence . . . the defendant didn't know what it meant. His attorney didn't know what it meant. The judge didn't know what it meant. Nobody knew what it meant."
Felons who committed their crimes after Jan. 1, 1995, must now serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Those who committed crimes before that date are still eligible for parole, but they have found it harder to win than before. The parole rate went down to 7 percent in 1999, compared to 40 percent in 1994.
Those who fought against the sentencing changes five years ago still consider them misguided, a political triumph but a policy failure.
"It's a really silly exercise. . . . It doesn't affect anything," said Jenni Gainsborough of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. "Judges and parole boards are in a much better position to determine who should be in prison than legislators."
Criminologists offer a more nuanced view, mostly agreeing that it's virtually impossible to show the effects of sentencing changes on crime rates, particularly after only five years.
The National Center for State Courts, based in Williamsburg, is issuing a 125-page report this week on Virginia's experience with parole abolition. The system achieved its goals through what the report calls a "comprehensive, inclusive and ultimately effective process of reform."
But as for the claim that parole abolition lowered crime, report author Brian J. Ostrom said: "I don't buy that fully. . . . Right now, the answer is unclear."
Also unclear is what happens when today's prisoners return to society. Some criminologists warn that long prison terms for violent felons could mean a new crime wave when they are released from a prison system focused more on warehousing criminals than rehabilitating them.
Garrison, who has spent the last 2 1/2 years in Southampton Correctional Center near the North Carolina border for killing Jonathan Hall, said there is no danger that he will ever return to crime.
A boy who got his first juvenile conviction at age 9, cut his first tattoo into his hand at age 11 and began drinking at age 12 is now a man at age 19, he said. He dreams of returning to society to work as a carpenter or an auto mechanic. He wants to see his daughter, now 3. He wants to find a wife.
"It's my fault. I realize that," Garrison said of helping to kill the 13-year-old boy he still calls a "good friend. But it doesn't take 50 years to figure out I need to straighten up."
Faced with such arguments, Allen replied, "Who do they think ought to be released early? And do they want them living next door?"
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN VIRGINIA
Virginia's violent crime rate has dropped since parole was abolished Jan. 1, 1995, but criminologists say parole abolition may not be the reason. Maryland, which has not abolished parole, has seen its violent crime rate drop faster, as has the nation.
Violent Crime Rates
Change in violent crime between 1994, the last year under the old system, and 1998
Virginia: Down 9%
Maryland: Down 16%
U.S.: Down 21%
Longer Prison Stays in Virginia
Sentences assume no prior convictions
Years served with parole*: 12.4
Years served without parole**: 35.3
Years served with parole*: 4.9
Years served without parole**: 16.3
Years served with parole*: 5.6
Years served without parole**: 9
Robbery with firearm
Years served with parole*: 2.7
Years served without parole**: 6.4
Years served with parole*: 1.4
Years served without parole**: 3.2
*Average time served under Virginia system from 1988 to 1992.
**Average expected time served for cases sentenced from 1997 to 1999.
SOURCE: FBI, Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission
CAPTION: Former governor George Allen worked to end parole in Virginia.