Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) on Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of the state's abolition of parole, which they said has resulted in longer prison terms for violent felons, more certainty in sentencing and lower crime rates.
Activists who bitterly fought parole abolition a decade ago also remembered the day by gathering at the Capitol. They said the decision to eliminate parole continues to devastate inmates and their families, and they questioned its impact on crime rates.
As governor, Allen signed the landmark legislation into law after championing it as the centerpiece of a get-tough-on-crime campaign. Allen crisscrossed the state, telling stories of brutal crimes committed by felons who had been released from prison years early.
On Wednesday, he recalled several of those stories.
"We saw a police detective gunned down on Father's Day by someone released early on parole," he told a crowd that included many of the politicians and staff who helped pass the legislation. "We had a revolving door of justice in Virginia that I wanted to slam shut. We did right by the law-abiding citizens of Virginia."
Kilgore, who served as Allen's secretary of public safety and is running for governor next year, said he believes abolishing parole "made Virginia a safer place to call home."
As he did a decade ago, Allen said the state's parole system was unfair to victims and dangerous to citizens by allowing violent felons to serve just a quarter or a third of their sentences behind bars. Before the changes, Allen said, murderers were serving an average of only 10 years in prison, and rapists were serving about four years.
Allen and Kilgore said violent crime has dropped 26 percent since 1994, according to statistics from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. Homicides are down 24 percent, assaults 10 percent and robberies 23 percent, they said. And violent felons are serving more time: First-degree murderers with violent records were serving about 15 years on average in 1994; now, commission statistics show, they serve on average 46 years.
Allen also restated his criticism of the proponents of parole, who had predicted soaring costs to build more prisons. Allen and other lawmakers who helped abolish parole said the need for new prisons has not been as great as some predicted in 1994.
"We overcame the misplaced objections of the criminal apologists," Allen said.
Jean Auldridge, director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, helped lead the fight against abolishing parole. Her group organized a rally after Wednesday's news conference by Allen and Kilgore. Several dozen people attended, including state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III (D-Richmond) and Kent Willis, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
Auldridge said that lack of parole is keeping thousands of nonviolent inmates in prisons too long and that the state has done little to help ease reentry into society.
"Parole protects our citizens because [inmates] come out with someone to call if they need something," she said. "The missing link is reentry. What is going to happen to these people?"
Auldridge said she is respectful of people who have been victims of violence. But she said the abolition of parole had little to do with the drop in violent crime, which began several years earlier. And she said Allen's continued focus on the worst of the violent offenders is meant to divert attention from nonviolent felons, who she said make up 85 percent of Virginia's prison population.
"This is the same things they said 10 years ago," she said. "It's repetition, repetition, repetition."