RICHMOND — Virginia Republicans on Monday challenged Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s efforts to study reinstating parole for nonviolent felons, which is part of a growing national call to reduce high rates of incarceration.
Twenty years after parole was abolished by former governor George Allen, Republicans say the policy has worked. More violent offenders are behind bars, they said, and victims can take comfort in knowing that criminals will serve sentences as handed down by judges and juries.
Republicans spoke publicly Monday in advance of the first meeting of a commission McAuliffe (D) created to review whether doing away with parole reduced crime and recidivism, analyze costs and make recommendations. He is one of a long list of politicians, including President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who have called for criminal justice reform.
Supporters of “truth in sentencing,” as parole abolition was also called in the 1990s, said at a news conference that McAuliffe and others are trying to impose a solution where there is no problem. They cited several state studies that have concluded that parole abolition is meeting its goals. And they accused McAuliffe of playing politics to draw support from his liberal base of Democratic supporters.
In the past 20 years, for instance, the number of violent offenders behind bars increased from about 60 percent of all inmates to 80 percent, according to data from a Senate Finance Committee report. In other words, prisons have not filled up with nonviolent offenders, as some are suggesting, said state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg).
“Let’s not mess with success,” he said. “This has worked. The governor in trying to restore our liberal, lenient system of parole is, I suspect, trying to mark one more box on the liberal checklist.”
Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle) said of all the state’s inmates, only 13 percent were in prison primarily for drug offenses as of June 2013, according to a report from the state Department of Corrections Statistical Analysis and Forecast Unit.
“The idea we’re serving very lengthy sentences, that we can open up a lot of prison bed space by making it even harder to go to prison for these offenses, it’s a lie,” Bell said.
Brian Moran, McAuliffe’s secretary of public safety and homeland security and co-chairman of the Parole Review and Update Commission, said he supported doing away with parole when he was a young prosecutor in Arlington County. He recalled one case in which a rapist was sentenced to 17 years in prison, but would only serve three years and five months.
“Now, 20 years later, it is time we review these policy decisions and determine whether there are opportunities for improvement,” he said during the meeting, which followed the Republicans’ news conference. “The purpose of this commission is not to overturn this 1994 decision to abolish parole but rather it is to hear presentations from experts and identify evidence-based, data-driven strategies to improve our criminal justice system.”
As adamant as some Republicans are in opposition to the effort, they are not necessarily in lock step with public opinion, which has shifted dramatically since the era when parole was abolished in Virginia — and when tough-on-crime postures were popular among both Republican and Democratic voters.
Today, a vast majority of Americans supports lighter sentences for nonviolent drug offenses — and a greater emphasis on treatment than prosecution.
Republicans have found themselves out of step with some voters on other issues, including gay marriage — yet wildly popular with their own party’s base. Less clear is whether parole abolition will rise to the level of campaign issue in the coming state elections this fall, when the GOP will attempt to defend its slim majority in the state Senate — or in 2016, when Virginia is expected to be a key swing state in the presidential contest.
Last week Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma to draw attention to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos, and White House hopefuls have touched on criminal justice reform on the stump.
Levar M. Stoney, secretary of the commonwealth and commission co-chairman, said North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado are also studying their parole policies and cautioned against a rush to judgment about what Virginia will ultimately decide.
McAuliffe has irritated conservatives with an unabashedly liberal agenda. He has pushed 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.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has said the criminal justice system has a disproportionate impact on people of color.
Obenshain conceded that the quality of lawyers available to defendants and socioeconomic issues are “legitimate and fair concerns.” But he said, “These are not issues that are addressed by or solved by reinstituting parole in Virginia.”
Instead of bringing back parole, he said Virginia should look for ways to provide treatment to nonviolent drug addicts and the mentally ill, and save money on incarceration with fewer maximum security prisons and jails.
Moran agreed that the state could do a better job utilizing alternatives to incarceration such as work release and drug courts.
Although not addressed in McAuliffe’s executive order creating the commission, Moran said the group may suggest changes to sentencing guidelines to take into consideration the significant number of older inmates in Virginia’s prisons.
Virginia’s prison population nearly doubled, from 17,418 to 29,643, from 1990 to 2000. Between 1995 and 2000, Virginia built seven new prisons with 8,000 cells, he said.
At their news conference, Republicans also noted that making inmates eligible for parole re-traumatizes victims.
John Sanders of Fluvanna County said parole was still in effect 24 years ago when his 8-year-old son Christopher was murdered by his mother, who was then given two life sentences. After 18 years, she was eligible for parole and continues to have hearings.
“There has not been a day in the last 24 years that I have not thought about what my son must have gone through in the last horrifying moments of his life,” he said. “Going through these parole hearings intensified this tenfold.”