The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia abolished parole 25 years ago. Now efforts to restore it are advancing.

Prisoner advocates crowd into a committee room at the General Assembly in Richmond to show their support for a parole bill on Jan. 30.
Prisoner advocates crowd into a committee room at the General Assembly in Richmond to show their support for a parole bill on Jan. 30. (Antonio Olivo/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam's push to reinstate some forms of parole in Virginia is stirring anger among crime victims and prompting dire warnings from Republicans about the danger of letting criminals go free.

Twenty-five years after the state did away with the practice of releasing prisoners who had served a portion of their sentence, thousands of inmates could be eligible to get out under bills making their way through the Democratically controlled General Assembly.

Prisoner advocates cheer the effort to dismantle a 1995 parole ban that the Northam administration says has led to crowded prisons, escalating medical costs for aging inmates and inequities in sentencing that disproportionately affect people of color.

But victims groups argue that the possibility of releasing offenders before their sentences expire would force families to relive their traumatic experiences.

“It seems like this legislation cares more about the prisoners than they do the crime victims,” said Teresa McKensie, a victims advocate in rural Floyd County whose 72-year-old ex-husband is in prison for trying to stab her to death in 2003. “This is devastating to victims’ families.”

The bulk of the proposed changes chips away at the parole ban, which was a “truth in sentencing” initiative adopted during a national wave of tough-on-crime laws. The law mandates that inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, ending early-release programs in which some felons served as little as a fifth of their original sentences.

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About a dozen other states have also abolished parole in some form, though a few have since reestablished early-release programs for juvenile offenders, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group in Washington.

Some of the proposals under consideration in Richmond this year would grant eligibility for a parole hearing to inmates who committed their crimes as juveniles and to those who are terminally ill or physically disabled. Others would lower the eligibility age for “geriatric release” to as young as 50. There are also proposals to reinstate parole for all prisoners.

“We’re a nation of second chances, and people ought to have a second chance,” said Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke), who chairs the Judiciary Committee and is sponsoring a full repeal bill.

“The fact that you’re eligible for parole doesn’t mean you’re going to get parole,” he added. “It’s done on an individualized basis, and each inmate’s situation is different.”

Republicans argue that the 1995 ban has made Virginia safer, pointing to federal statistics showing that, in 2018, the state had the fourth-lowest violent crime rate in the country. The 23.4 percent recidivism rate — the percentage of those released from prison who commit another crime — is lowest in the nation.

Given that nearly 70 percent of the state’s 35,000 inmates are serving sentences for violent crimes, “I would certainly hope my colleagues will be very, very cautious about making changes, with a full appreciation of the damage they may be doing,” said Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), who chaired the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee when Republicans held the majority.

Democrats, who control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time in a generation, are walking a careful line with their proposals. Several bills exclude inmates convicted of Class 1 felonies, such as murder, punishable by death or life in prison.

One change championed by the governor’s office applies to about 310 inmates sentenced by juries who were not told about Virginia’s parole ban during the five years before a 2000 state Supreme Court decision that requires such notifications to be made. On Jan. 24, a bill that would make that group eligible for parole passed the House of Delegates, while a companion bill in the Senate sailed through its first committee hearing.

“This is a matter of basic fairness,” said Brian Moran, the state’s Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, adding it is likely the juries in those cases recommended longer sentences because they believed the defendants would serve only a portion of that time if they qualified for parole.

Moran said the Northam administration also hopes to curb escalating medical costs for prison inmates, which now total about $240 million per year, chiefly because of a growing population of prisoners older than 55.

Democrats hope to expand the pool of inmates eligible for “geriatric release,” which currently applies to prisoners who are either older than 60 and have served at least 10 years of their sentences or older than 65, with at least five years in prison.

A bill that passed the Senate on Monday allows inmates with terminal illnesses or permanent physical disabilities to become eligible, while other bills lower the age requirement to 50, with at least 20 years in prison.

Lillie Branch-Kennedy, whose nonprofit Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged organization has lobbied for parole to be reinstated, said the changes would help fix sentencing disparities that have kept more people of color in prison.

“It’s not about the crime; it’s about a person’s right to a fair trial and about fair discipline being adhered to by our judicial system,” Branch-Kennedy said.

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But some crime victims’ families argue that the prospect of seeing the people who hurt them set free earlier than expected is a form of “revictimization.”

Paula Langbein, 49, whose 23-year-old daughter, Ashleigh, was shot 10 times by her boyfriend in southwestern Virginia three years ago, fretted over the idea of having to attend a parole hearing to keep him from being released before his 63-year sentence expires.

If James Canter, 28, can seek parole after he turns 50, she said, “he’d be out in my lifetime, which I never expected.”

“He could still have a life; get in another relationship.”

Linda Dean, 68, whose sister Sharon R. Harvin was stabbed to death in Fairfax County 11 years ago, said she feels conflicted about the parole revisions.

As an African American who voted for Democrats during the fall elections, Dean said she supports the idea of fixing “the imbalance” in sentencing. But she also does not want to see her sister’s killer — Santo Ortez Sheffey — go free before his 30-year sentence expires. Under the current law, Sheffey, 60, became eligible to be considered for geriatric release last summer, which Dean and her family have been fighting.

“I understand that some of that needs to be looked at,” Dean said of parole restructuring. “However, I don’t think it should be broadly paintbrushed. We thought geriatric release meant when he was old and feeble.”

Democrats say any inmate eligible for parole would still have to prove he or she is not a public safety risk.

“At a minimum, these people deserve the chance to make their case,” said Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), who sponsored one of the bills that would affect inmates whose juries were not told about the 1995 ban.

Others are pushing for a slower approach before widespread revisions are approved.

“My hope is that we do it correctly and not just rush into something,” said Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), whose bill calls for a study on the best ways to repeal the 1995 law.

But the desire for change is clear.

More than 50 prisoner advocates crowded into a House committee hearing Thursday night to support a bill by Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) that would allow inmates who participate in rehabilitation programs to shave up to 30 days off their sentence each month.

Scott, who also has a bill to repeal the 1995 law, cited a study that showed how several low-income Virginia neighborhoods are affected by high incarceration rates, with inmates from those areas languishing in prison.

“This is a situation that will not go away,” Scott told the committee members, as the crowd applauded. “You can keep running away from it, but it’s going to keep running back to you.”

The committee approved the bill on a party-line vote.

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