The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia can be at the forefront of criminal justice reform

The Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, Va. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
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Nora V. Demleitner is the Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University.

As Virginia’s legislature convenes to enact wide-ranging policing reform, the fight over the reinstitution of parole will be a harbinger of criminal justice reform in Virginia and beyond. Virginia’s abolition of parole for the vast majority of offenders in 1995 effectively discarded the belief both in individual change and in the state’s ability to facilitate it. The recent uptick in parole releases for the few still eligible has triggered a political fight over the future of parole. Its outcome will affect not only this state but criminal justice reform around the country.

With the move toward truth-in-sentencing in the 1980s, almost a third of all states, including Virginia, and the federal system prospectively abolished parole. For those still eligible, parole grants came ever later and often never. Between 2012 and 2018, on average, Virginia’s Parole Commission granted parole to about 6 percent of applicants. Geriatric parole, which is available at the earliest to offenders who are at least 60 years old and have served 10 years, has been equally unavailing. Yet lower is the percentage released early of those who were sentenced under the Youthful Offender Act.

Stingy parole grants are not restricted to Virginia but constitute a national trend. Parole has been politicized, with boards and governors fearing the blame should a parolee commit a crime. In the past few weeks, the virulent backlash from victims, their families and prosecutors to some parole grants has haunted Virginia’s Commission. Parole decisions again have become fodder for the mill of politics.

The Parole Commission stands accused of procedural violations in the release of Vincent Martin who was convicted of killing a Richmond police officer 41 years ago. Police agencies across the state, the victim’s family and the prosecutor’s office in the case opposed the release, but the commission stood by its decision. The release of another convicted killer, Patrick Schooley Jr., has made it into GOP political ads. Schooley committed a heinous rape-murder but he served four decades in prison for a crime he committed at age 15. The opposition to these parole grants is not about process. They reject the concept of parole entirely. For them, only life without parole will suffice. Yet, retribution is also about proportionality, about limits to the oppressive power of the state. The legislature is called upon to set those limits, at a reasonable and proportionate length.

The crime can never be undone, but after a sufficiently lengthy retributive period, the offender should have the opportunity to rejoin the broader community as long as he presents no threat to public safety. The goal of parole is to give a second chance to offenders whose behavior during imprisonment indicates that they will successfully reintegrate. People can and do change, and the state needs to play its part in facilitating and rewarding such change.

To provide the tools for reintegration, correctional institutions must offer rehabilitative and mental health services, education and training. Parole presents an incentive for participation in prison programs that should be evidence-based to assist an offender in successfully reentering. Correctional institutions also must support an offender’s outside social network.

Parole commissions should take their focus off the crime and put it onto the individual’s path afterward to assess personal change and risk to the community. Neither victims nor prosecutors possess relevant information on those scores. They deserve to be informed of parole considerations and decisions, but they should not be permitted to exercise a veto, which is effectively the case in many states. The best protections against future crime are older age and a strong pro-social outside network of family and friends, supported by effective supervision.

The fight over recent releases by Virginia’s Parole Commission exemplifies the long and circuitous path to systemic criminal justice reform. Opposition to those parole grants should not distract Virginia’s legislature from the need to decrease its large prison system. Parole reflects a belief in redemption and another opportunity for an offender. It must be reinvigorated, not squelched. A robust parole system can go a long way toward second chances, less crowded prisons and a safer and fairer society.

Read more:

Mark J. Rozell: Virginia Democrats must play catch-up on criminal justice reform

The Post’s View: Virginia Democrats must enact meaningful policing reform worthy of the moment

The Post’s View: Virginia finally recognizes that children jailed for life deserve at least a chance for parole

Don Scott: Police cannot be exempt by the law. Here’s what Virginia should do.

​​Dick Saslaw: How Virginia will tackle racial injustice