Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Guestpost: How Many Years Will Satisfy Virginia's Citizens?

Buckingham Correctional Center
The following was sent to me recently by Charles Zellers, Sr., an inmate I correspond with at the Buckingham Correctional Center. Zellers was incarcerated over twenty-one years ago on the basis of an Alford plea he had agreed to with the understanding that he would soon be eligible for parole and released:

Over ten thousand of Virginia's parole eligible prisoners have been waiting to be released so they can be reunited with loved ones. These men and women have been incarcerated from nineteen to fifty years.

How many years is enough?

Many of these prisoners have been behind bars since they were in their teens and twenties. Now that many of them are elderly they are costing taxpayers more than ever.

Virginia's Parole Board continues to fail thousands of Virginians and their families. Virginia judges had sentenced offenders to sentences that would release men and women back into society if they completed the requirements designed by the General Assembly (COV 53.1-53.1-A) and implemented by the Virginia Department of Corrections Director.

This system was designed to evaluate prisoners received according to their background, aptitude, education and risk based on an assessment of needs, then determine program assignments which include vocational, career and technical education, work and academic activities, counseling, alcohol and substance abuse treatment to help them transition to free society and gainful employment. If the prisoner did not complete these assignment, he or she would receive disciplinary action that would take back good time the person had earned and push back the date of eligibility for discretionary parole release.

But the most recent parole boards, for the most part, have not done this. Governor Allen, who had parole revoked in Virginia for all offenders jailed after July 1, 1995, then created a list of parole decision factors that went beyond those approved by the Assembly. And prisoners are now only entitled to be seen by the parole interviewer only once a year, or every two or three years if the offender has ten or more years left to serve.

The parole board denies release of most prisoners because of "the seriousness of the crime", but this is not what the original law says, resulting in billions of dollars spent in keeping people behind bars who are no longer a risk to society. It is inhumane to keep model prisoners incarcerated until they die.

The basic principle behind the parole system is that while people must be punished for their wrongdoing, most are capable of growing, changing and rejoining society before the end of their discretionary sentence. The parole board should be looking at a prisoner's future and at their accomplishments while incarcerated, not at the past crime that put the offender in prison. For "old law" offenders (prior to 1995) release should be the default and the parole board should have to give a good reason to keep these offenders incarcerated. The millions used to house these offenders could be used for K-12 education, health care, affordable housing and other community services.

                                               * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The following is from the Parole Board website:

The Virginia Parole Board was established by law in 1942 and the Board continues to be empowered by Virginia Code Section 53.1-136 to make the following decisions:
  • to conditionally release inmates who are parole eligible,
  • to revoke parole and post release supervision of those under supervision found to be in violation of the terms of their release, and
  • to investigate, prepare reports and advise the Governor, when requested, on Executive Clemencies.
The Board has the legal responsibility to act on geriatric requests for conditional release under Virginia Code Section 53.1 - 40.01.

Current parole board members as recently appointed by Governor McAuliffe include:

Karen Brown, chair (former vice chair)
The Reverend Doctor A. Lincoln James (pastor of Trinity Church in Richmond)
Sherman R. Lea (Roanoke City Council member, former VDOC head, Western District)
Minor F. Stone (25 years in law enforcement)
(unable to find the name of the fifth member)

Post a Comment