RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe will create a commission to study reinstating parole in Virginia, two decades after it was abolished by then-Gov. George Allen amid a wave of tough-on-crime laws across the country.
During a radio appearance Wednesday, McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order to review whether doing away with parole reduced crime and recidivism, analyze costs and make recommendations.
“It’s time to review whether that makes sense. Is it keeping our citizens safe? Is it a reasonable, good, cost-effective way? Are we rehabilitating folks?” he said. “Are sentences too long for nonviolent offenses? Are we keeping people in prison too long?”
The move is consistent with McAuliffe’s push to restore voting rights to thousands of former prisoners and remove from state job applications questions about criminal records, known as the ‘ban the box’ campaign.
It also comes at a time when the country is redefining the way it enforces its laws, and sometimes questioning the strict policing and corrections strategies of the 1990s.
A task force commissioned by President Obama, for example, recommended broad changes this year in police practices to build trust with residents — including having independent investigators review use-of-force cases and in-custody deaths. And two years ago, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging drug offenders without ties to gangs or larger organizations with crimes that result in severe mandatory sentences.
Carl Wicklund, the executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, said research suggests that the laws of the 1990s were not necessarily effective, and politicians from both parties are embracing change. Parole gives inmates motivation to better themselves in hopes they could be let out early, he said.
“People are starting to look at that, how do you incentivize people when they’re in prison to actually start to get their act together?” Wicklund said.
But others say that crime declined in Virginia in the two decades since parole was abolished and that the prisons are not overflowing with nonviolent first-time offenders.
“I want to ask them which murderer, rapist or armed robber they want to get out of jail,” said former Virginia attorney general Jerry Kilgore (R), a lawyer in private practice who was Allen’s secretary of public safety. “Under the old system, murderers were serving a fourth to a third of their time.”
C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), a former prosecutor, said Virginia tends to lock up what he called “the right people”: violent offenders, repeat offenders, chronic probation violators and drug dealers.
“Why the governor would want to tinker with undoing a good thing is beyond me,” he said. “It’s pure politics. I’m sure he’s getting a tremendous amount of pressure from the base of his party to tear down the criminal justice system. Criminal apologists would love nothing more than to have no one serve any time for practically anything.”
In the interview with WTOP (103.5 FM), McAuliffe said it is his job to protect citizens, but also safeguard taxpayer dollars. The state houses 30,369 inmates at a cost of $27,462 per year per inmate and a total of $833 million annually, he said. Inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be released for good behavior.
“The question now, 20 years later, is has it made us safer or have we spent a lot of money and we haven’t done what we need to do for rehabilitation?” he said.
Former Virginia attorney general Mark L. Earley Sr. — a Republican whom Allen once portrayed as an ally in abolishing parole — will chair the commission with McAuliffe’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, and his secretary of the commonwealth, Levar Stoney. The Commission on Parole Review must complete a final report by Dec. 4.
“I want everybody just to relax here. We’re not saying let everybody out. We’re not doing that. We’re going to do a comprehensive study,” McAuliffe said.
The effects of parole abolition were also the subject of a study by the Senate Finance Committee released in November, which deemed the policy change a success.
“Virginia has the third-lowest rate of violent crime and the second-lowest recidivism in the nation,” the 74-page report concluded. “Sentencing reform is working as intended.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said there is little evidence that parole abolition has made Virginians safer. In fact, the state’s incarceration rate has increased and crime rate has declined at a slower rate than states that have reduced their incarceration levels, the group said.
“By removing the opportunity for parole, the commonwealth has also compounded the disproportionate impact that our criminal justice system has on people of color,” said ACLU executive director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.
Democrats generally praised McAuliffe for revisiting the policy. “It’s an issue of public safety and our commitment to rehabilitation, are we actually doing that in Virginia?” said Del. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), chairwoman of the House Democratic caucus.
Virginia House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said the commission could recommend relaxing parole for some offenders, but not others.
“I don’t believe the governor has any interest in encouraging any policy that’s going to release hardened criminals in advance of their sentence being served,” he said.
But Republicans denounced any effort to roll back one of the landmark reforms of Allen’s governorship.
Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), a criminal lawyer and former prosecutor who is planning to run for attorney general in 2017, said changing the state’s policy “would be an enormous step back for public safety in Virginia” and would create a “backdoor out of prison” after jurors, detectives and victims have left the courtroom.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he agreed that the current system has served the commonwealth well and has become a national model.
“While there are always improvements to be made, the notion that Virginia needs wholesale criminal justice reform seems to be more about politics than policy,” he said.
Parole abolition was popular in Virginia when Allen pushed for it, said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who worked on Allen’s 1993 campaign. Allen won the governor’s office that year by an 18-point margin on the promise to abolish parole, and the General Assembly, then controlled by Democrats, passed it his first year in office, he said.
“When Allen abolished parole in 1994, it was for violent offenders,” LaCivita said. “And the primary reason was because so many of those who were convicted of violent crimes were only serving a part of their sentence.”
As of 2000, 16 states had done away with discretionary release on parole, and four other states had gotten rid of the practice for certain crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Experts said few, if any, states seem to have reversed course. If Virginia were to do so completely, it might be the first, said Keith Hardison, the chief administrative officer of Association of Paroling Authorities International, which represents parole board staffers.
“It’s not unexpected, because it seems like a logical extension of some of the changing, perhaps backing off somewhat of the ‘get tough’ era, and the ‘nothing works’ era,” he said.
Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos (D) said it “makes abundant sense” to revisit the policy but noted that she did not feel abolishing parole was a mistake. Crime has dwindled in Virginia since parole was abolished, and while she said there might not be a causation, it was a factor to be considered.
“It’s a function of a lot of things, but clearly, the bad folks who are in for a long time . . . for the time that they’re in for, they’re not committing crimes on the street,” she said.
Stamos noted that no matter what the commission finds, it would be up to the Republican-controlled General Assembly to restore parole — an unlikely outcome.
“In Virginia?” she said. “I would be surprised.”