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Will Parole Get a Second Chance in Virginia?

Twenty years after abolishing parole, one state is examining the impact (and the politics).
The Virginia State Capitol in June 2003. (Photo: Anderskev/Wikimedia Commons)

The Virginia State Capitol in June 2003. (Photo: Anderskev/Wikimedia Commons)

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe revived an old debate when he announced in a recent radio appearance that he was creating a commission to study the re-establishment of parole, something that has not been a part of the state’s criminal justice system for over 20 years.

The state abolished all discretionary parole in 1994, right after George Allen won the gubernatorial race thanks to his tough-on-crime campaign. Since then, rather than being eligible for parole hearings over the course of serving time, felony offenders in Virginia are all required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences—good behavior or no.

According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are now only about 2,000 Virginians on parole, as compared to the 11,500 parolees that there were in 1993, the year before discretionary parole was scrapped. Fifteen other states besides Virginia now have no discretionary parole (and four more limit it to certain offenders)—though some states that had previously abolished it did later re-instate it in response to over-crowding in prisons.

Parole boards can monitor inmates’ mental health and overall progress better than a computer that merely calculates the required percentage of a sentence served.

“Twenty 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?” McAuliffe asked in his interview with WTOP-FM. He said that Virginia currently incarcerates 30,369 people, and that each one costs the state $27,462 a year.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia answered McAuliffe’s question in the negative. The group came out in support of parole reform in an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, citing specifically “a 735 percent increase in the commonwealth’s incarceration rate since the 1970s” and “an annual corrections budget exceeding $1 billion” as evidence that something needs to change.

“Meanwhile, Virginia’s crime rate, while following the national trend downward, has decreased less than in states that have reduced incarceration levels during the same period,” wrote the ACLU’s Claire Guthrie Gastañaga—arguing that longer prison sentences do not rehabilitate prisoners faster, nor do they decrease recidivism rates in those prisoners who will eventually be released.

But McAuliffe faces an uphill battle, reports the Washington Post, as many of his colleagues in Richmond oppose the idea. A Senate Finance Commission report last year attributed Virginia’s relatively low violent crime rates to sentencing reform over the past 20 years, including the abolition of parole. The editorial board of the Virginian-Pilot recently cited that report as proof that, “despite some flaws, wholesale reform of Virginia’s criminal justice system may not be warranted.” And the same day the Richmond Times-Dispatch published that op-ed by Gastañaga of the ACLU, it ran another by Rob Bell, Virginia state representative and chairman of the Criminal Laws Subcommittee, who wrote that parole turns a carefully considered criminal sentence into “a lie,” whereas “ the longer sentences have kept violent and repeat offenders behind bars, substantially reducing Virginia’s crime rate.”

The two battle-lines are pretty clearly drawn. But, with any hope, when the commission’s report comes out (it is due in December), it will provide the context and facts required to have a deeper conversation about the impact of the parole ban. In 1999, while states across the country were abolishing parole in their attempts to crack down on crime, Joan Petersilia, then a professor of criminology and law at the University of California-Irvine (now of Stanford), wrote a plea that states would consider radically reforming their parole systems, rather than taking the extreme measure of abolishing them altogether.

Parole is not merely a public safety issue; it is also an important motivating factor for inmate rehabilitation, Petersilia wrote in the journal Crime and Justice. Parole boards can monitor inmates’ mental health and overall progress better than a computer that merely calculates the required percentage of a sentence served. She argued for a new parole model, “one that incorporates advances in technology, risk prediction, effective rehabilitation, and more ‘active’ forms of supervision that incorporate citizens and others who know the offender.” And she wrote: “We need to begin a serious dialogue aimed at ‘reinventing’ parole in the United States so that it better balances the need to hold offenders accountable with the need to provide services to released offenders.”

Fortunately, there have been developments in all of these areas since the nineties, and Virginia’s commission will be able to draw on a wealth of knowledge and experience from other states’ parole programs, as well as looking at the impact of the policy on Virginia alone. Unfortunately, it’s also clear from the dialogue already that politics and rhetoric will always be at the fore of this conversation.

In his radio address last month, McAuliffe mentioned that the commission he is establishing will not just study crime rates, recidivism rates, and the fiscal costs related to the current policy; it will also consider “the societal costs on communities and families from longer incarceration.” Meanwhile, the person most responsible for Virginia’s current parole ban, former Governor George Allen, lost no time in weighing in with the same talking points that helped get him elected in 1993.

“Because of our prioritization of concern for protecting law-abiding citizens and their communities, probably tens of thousands of Virginians are NOT victims of rape, murder or other violence to their loved ones,” Allen wrote on Facebook after McAuliffe’s announcement. “It will be interesting to see which specific felons that this Commission thinks should be released sooner.”

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.