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Monday, September 1, 2014

Guest Post: Is Our Virginia Parole Board Dysfunctional?

The following is a condensed version of something recently sent me by a Virginia inmate who has worked hard for decades to earn the parole he was assured he would get when he entered a plea instead of having his case tried in court. He wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

The unsanctioned activities of the Virginia Parole Board are counterproductive to Virginia's Adult Reentry Initiative, a plan to reduce recidivism rates and help state and local governments cut prison costs and save taxpayer dollars.

Prison maintenance costs are increasing every year, and at the same time Virginia's correctional facilities are as crowded as ever while more and more sentenced prisoners are backed up in  local and regional jails awaiting transfers to state correctional institutions.

Virginia's Truth-in-Sentencing Law grandfathered parole release for all prisoners sentenced prior to July 1, 1995, which means there are still thousands of old-law inmates waiting to be released on parole. Some signed plea agreements with verbal promises from attorneys that they would make first or second parole after they had served a number of years and completed mandated treatment programs. Yet the justice system, through its parole board, is finding ingenious ways to back out of its part of the commitment.

Parole eligible prisoners are often denied parole because the "war on crime" has become such a political issue, and for many in power it would seem like political suicide to have  large numbers of felons released back into society. In addition, many people get locked up because some police officers are overzealous, or because public defenders often fail to provide effective defenses, or because of mental illnesses. Authorities often see it as cheaper to lock people up than to treat them.

 VADOC programs aim to build up prisoners'self esteem, hopes and dreams by providing cognitive-behavioral treatment programs, education, and vocational and job training only to have the Parole Board tear it all down, with a grant rate of under 4%, one of the lowest in the nation.

These men and women are confused and disheartened. Do they save up money for release or spend money waiting to die in prison? Most have done all they can do, to no avail.

VADOC has completed a study on recidivism and found those convicted of violent crimes and sexually-based offenses had the  lowest recidivism rates. Those who committed such crimes in their youth eventually grow up to become the kind of mature, responsible individuals who can be safely returned to society where they can be monitored and supervised, and in many cases placed on Home Electronic Monitoring, which has proved to be highly successful and incomparably cheaper than keeping people locked up.

Some of the unlawful and unethical methods used by the VPB include dredging up old cases that are decades old, tracking down surviving victims and/or their families, and thus opening old wounds and asking intrusive questions about the continuing impact of old crimes. In addition to being traumatic to surviving victims and their families who are trying to move on with their lives, such methods represent forms of double jeopardy, since all the information related to the crime was already examined at trial and factored into the sentence decades or more ago.

Many cases of error and confusion have been associated with the work of the Parole Board:

1. Parole-eligible prisoners have received a one-year deferral only to find later that it was changed to a three-year deferral.

2. Some parole-eligible prisoners have received official denial letters with the name of the Board's chair imprinted on it even before they were able to speak to the parole interviewer.

3. There are all too frequent clerical errors in a prisoner's file, information they are not able to review ahead of time.

As a result of the way Virginia's expensive parole system is set up and operated, many parole eligible prisoners have come to the conclusion that no matter what evidence is offered at the hearing by the parole interviewer, that his or her impact on the Board's decisions is negligible.

Some examples of old-law prisoners who would present no risk to society if released on parole:

1. A nearly blind 82-year old who has served 38 years and is a model prisoner.

2. A model prisoner who has served over 40 years and who will be deported to his home country once he is paroled.

3. Countless men and women who have been model inmates, have earned single cells, and have a good work record, clean prison records, and excellent job references.

4. Hundreds of men and women who have met the criteria for Geriatric Parole release and have completed a treatment plan and become model prisoners.

Regrettably, Parole Board members tend to overestimate the likelihood that a released prisoner under supervised parole will re-offend. Ironically, they sometimes grant parole to prisoners who, judging by their institutional conduct, don't deserve it and who typically come right back to prison, thereby justifying the Board's extreme caution and miniscule parole rate.

May we suggest that the Governor of Virginia, jointly with the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety, form a task force to investigate and address the above concerns? The board should be transparent like all state agencies and submit to performance evaluations that would hold it accountable for its results and not cover up for its deficiencies.

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Check this link for more posts on this subject, then make a phone call and/or send a letter expressing your concern to the following current members of the parole board and to the Governor, the Secretary of Public Safety and the Attorney General (along with a copy of this post if you wish):

Ms. Karen Brown, Chair
Algie T. Howell, Jr., Vice-Chair 
The Reverend Doctor A. Lincoln James
Mr. Sherman R. Lea
Mr. Minor F. Stone
     c/o Virginia Parole Board
     6900 Atmore Drive
     Richmond, VA 23225
     (804) 674-3081

Governor Terry McAuliffe
P.O. Box 1475,
Richmond, Va.  23218
804-786-2211

Mr. Brian Moran
Office of the Secretary of Public Safety
P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, VA 23218
Office: 804-786-5351
Fax Line: 804-225-3882

Mr. Mark R. Herring
Office of the Attorney General
900 East Main Street
Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 786-2071 
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