By Rob Bell, June 30, 2015, Richmond Times
Governor McAuliffe has announced a commission to study the reinstatement of parole. Such a step would undo the most important public safety reform of the past 20 years, and would be an enormous step backward for Virginia.
First, a bit of history. Prior to 1994, prison sentences were not truly set by the judge and jury. Long after the verdict, an inmate could apply to the parole board, which would hold a hearing and could then reduce the sentence. Many inmates were released early, having served only one-quarter or even one-fifth of their original sentences.
Such a system is fundamentally deceitful, opaque and unfair to crime victims. At a criminal trial, evidence of the crime is presented. The victim or surviving family members have a right to describe the impact the crime had on them. The defendant gets his chance to present mitigating evidence. Then, after deliberation, the jury recommends the sentence, which is then reviewed by the judge. (In a bench trial, the judge performs these roles.)
In my work as a prosecutor, I observed how seriously juries worked to reach their unanimous sentence. This deliberation often took as long or longer than determining guilt. Victims care enormously about how long the defendant will be detained. At the conclusion, the sentence is announced to the public, closing the trial.
Parole makes this announced sentence a lie. Long after the jurors are gone, long after the police and prosecutor have moved on and long after the crime has faded in the public eye, a small, unelected group can release the defendant long before the term is up.
Parole hearings do allow the victim to present evidence, but this only emphasizes the unfairness of the process. It is hard enough for the victim and loved ones to testify one time, at trial. Parole hearings force them to describe what happened again and again, year after year, long after the support networks that surround trials are dissolved. Victims have told me that this forces them to repeatedly relive the worst day of their life.
The abolition of parole in 1994, along with other reforms, profoundly transformed Virginia’s criminal justice system.
Now in Virginia, we have truth in sentencing. A convicted felon must serve 85 percent of his sentence. Cops, prosecutors, judges and defendants know that when someone receives his sentence, he’ll serve almost all of it.
Truth in sentencing has also enhanced Virginia’s focus on violent offenders. Since 1994, sentences have increased significantly for those who commit violent crimes, especially repeat offenders. For example, sentences for rapists have doubled. Virginia really is doing a better job of keeping its most dangerous offenders off the street.
This focus on violent offenders is also reflected in the makeup of Virginia’s prison population. In 2013, 80.8 percent of state prison beds were holding violent felons. (For comparison, only 2 percent of prison beds were being used for simple drug possession, and most of these were already on probation when sentenced.) The idea that Virginia prisons are full of nonviolent offenders who should be paroled is simply untrue.
Of course, none of this would matter if it weren’t accomplishing its goals. However, under truth-in-sentencing, Virginia’s violent crime ranking was third-lowest in the country in 2013. Virginia has the second-lowest recidivism rate in the country.
Last, the abolition of parole has been repeatedly studied, including by a 2014 state Senate study, the source of many of these statistics. The conclusion has been and remains that abolishing parole works.
Truth-in-sentencing has made sentencing in Virginia more honest and transparent. It is fairer to victims. The longer sentences have kept violent and repeat offenders behind bars, substantially reducing Virginia’s crime rate. We are always looking for ways to improve criminal sentencing in Virginia, but reinstituting parole is not one of them.
Rob Bell represents the 58th District (Charlottesville) in the Virginia House of Delegates. He is chairman of the Criminal Laws Subcommittee and co-chairman of the State Crime Commission. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.