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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thousands Of Inmates Pray For Passage of Virginia Parole Bill HB 951

The majority of Virginia's parole eligible inmates are over 50
A bill before the Virginia House of Delegates this session, HB 951, holds new hope for aging "old law" prisoners incarcerated before parole was abolished in 1995, which means that in 2015 they will have been behind bars for twenty years or more.

It would mandate that "any person eligible for parole whose time served, including earned sentence credits and good conduct credits, has exceeded the midpoint of the most recent discretionary sentencing guidelines established by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission § 17.1-806 for the same or similar offense, the Board shall order the release unless (i) it is of the opinion that release should be deferred because there is substantial risk that such a person will not conform to the conditions of parole and (ii) it issues a reasoned decision explaining the basis for such decision."

The men and women affected would appreciate your taking the time to contact your representatives in Richmond in their support, such as the following: Tony Wilt, deltwilt@house.virginia.gov  Steve Landes, delslandes@house.virginia.gov  Todd Gilbert, deltgilbert@house.virginia.gov  Richard Bell delrbell@house.state.va.us   Emmett Hanger, district24@senate.virginia.gov  Mark Obenshain,  mark@markobenshain.com

For more background, you may want to read the following in yesterday's Daily News-Record

Why Keep The Elderly In Prison? 
(the title I had submitted was "Still No Parole Reform In Virginia")

While parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995, more than 3,500 older inmates remain parole eligible. Unfortunately, the parole grant rate in recent years has been under 3 percent, one of the lowest in the nation.

Some of us had hoped that with the governor’s appointment of a new board this year, deserving state inmates would finally get a better break.

However, little appears to have changed. Many inmates with whom I correspond have virtually given up hope for release. One 72-year-old at the Coffeewood Correctional Center with an exemplary prison record of more than 25 years has been refused parole 13 times. Other model prisoners have remained free of prison-related infractions for decades, and have taken virtually every class and rehab program available to them (and in some cases have even earned college credits) have been routinely denied. This in spite of their having learned work skills that make them invaluable assets to their respective institutions, and in spite of having members of their communities and their prison counselors actively advocating for their release. None of this seems to make any difference, not even the fact that many parole eligible inmates (those incarcerated before 1995) are in declining health and are eligible for geriatric release.

According to Virginia Citizens United For The Rehabilitation of Errants, more than 700 inmates in Virginia prisons are 60 years of age or older. Of these, 74 are older than 70, and one is 90. With the recidivism risk for offenders more than 60 being less than 1 percent, what purpose is being served by paying for their incarceration and geriatric care (some $60,000 a year when medical costs are included)?

Yet after years of going before an official parole board interviewer (prisoners typically do not get to meet with an actual member of the board) the rejection letters they routinely receive are typically the same:

■ Release at this time would diminish the seriousness of the crime;


■ The board considers you a risk to the community;

■ Serious nature and circumstances of your offense[s];

■ The board concludes that you should serve more of your sentence prior to release on parole.

All of this is stated in what is essentially a form letter signed mechanically with the name of the board’s chairman.

How can a decades-long record of exemplary behavior in a state prison, one of the most crime-ridden settings imaginable, be interpreted as a sign that a person will renew a life of crime upon his or her release? And as to the “seriousness of the crime,” an inmate cannot change their past offenses. The primary question is whether our so-called correctional system is actually correcting a given individual — not whether he or she has been sufficiently punished.

Meanwhile, the commonwealth is attempting to reduce costs by closing some prisons and cramming more and more inmates into other facilities. The Augusta Correctional Center, for example, has recently gone from having a capacity number of around 1,000 to more than 1,350, a situation that could threaten the safety of both inmates and under staffed prison personnel alike.

I want members of the board to know that when they deny release to incarcerated citizens who have worked hard to earn it, they are not speaking for most of us. And that they are affecting morale inside prison in a decidedly negative way.

As a taxpayer and concerned citizen, I am disheartened and dismayed.
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