In 1994, the Virginia General Assembly abolished parole in the commonwealth, requiring felony offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, with the potential to earn good-behavior credits toward an early release date.
Then-Gov. George Allen (R) and the legislature believed abolishing parole would prevent new felony offenses and reduce recidivism by keeping career criminals off the streets. The legislation also was intended to divert nonviolent drug offenders from the criminal justice system into treatment, thereby reserving prison beds for the most violent offenders.
There is no denying that the abolition of parole has been successful and that truth in sentencing has strengthened the integrity of our justice system. Virginia has experienced lower crime rates and has the second-lowest recidivism rate in the country.
However, no policy is without flaws, and no program is above examination. I agree with Allen, who recently said, “every governor should periodically review policies in place in their State.” Governors have no greater responsibility than ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent effectively, with the greatest possible return and benefits to the public. This is a trust I take seriously and that has been a priority of my administration.
We ended ill-conceived plans to expand Route 460, saving taxpayers $149 million. We reformed operations at the Port of Virginia, which was losing millions each month when I took office, and returned it to profitability in slightly more than a year. We directed our agencies to ensure that their resources were dedicated to the highest and best use.
Virginia spends more than $1.1 billion each year on our corrections system. The time has come to evaluate our progress, identify opportunities to improve our system, build on our successes and maximize the return on our investment. I created the Commission on Parole Review, co-chaired by former attorney general Mark Earley (R), Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney, to examine these issues and provide recommendations to strengthen our system to the benefit of all Virginians.
One issue we must address is the number of nonviolent offenders occupying prison beds. While we have made progress in reducing this number, the Department of Corrections reports that 9,000 offenders, representing 24 percent of its population, have no violent crimes on their records. At $27,000 per inmate per year, we are spending approximately $243 million annually to house nonviolent offenders.
Opponents of the Commission on Parole Review, which I established through executive order, have said this review is unnecessary. I find it hard to believe that we could not spend a single dollar of that $243 million more effectively by investing in mental health or substance-abuse services or with alternatives to sentencing such as drug courts or other successful diversion programs.
Improving outcomes for public safety and better utilizing taxpayer dollars are top priorities of my administration. For example, I recently increased salaries for deputy sheriffs and correctional officers, which will improve retention and allow us to keep our strongest officers in our communities and state and local public safety facilities.
There are other opportunities to achieve similar results, which is why I established the commission. My decision was not motivated by politics or a desire to let violent offenders out of prison or an intention to reverse the 1994 decision. This is about looking out for taxpayer dollars while maintaining public safety. As governor, it is my duty to ensure that every taxpayer dollar spent is generating the best possible return on investment. This is another important step in building the new Virginia economy.
Unfortunately, the conversation around parole has become a platform for partisan politics, shifting attention from the real issue: evaluating our policies and identifying areas where we can do better. Is the commonwealth appropriately balancing its responsibilities to punish and to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders?
With more than two decades of evidence and data, the Commission on Parole Review is well-positioned to engage in the thorough, careful analysis necessary to create meaningful change. I am confident that with the strong, bipartisan leadership and diverse membership of the commission, I will receive a robust set of evidence-based recommendations in December that will protect public safety and offer alternative sentencing options for nonviolent offenders while keeping faith with the original intent of the 1994 legislation.
The writer, a Democrat, is governor of Virginia.