Price of Parole: politics keep Virginia prisons more full, cost millions

The Virginia Parole Board, a panel the governor appoints to determine which inmates earn early release, in 2022 received 3,320 applications for parole; 78 were granted.

On average, eight prisoners won parole release each month from some 280 applicants. In December of that year, one made the cut.

Virginia lawmakers eliminated most types of discretionary parole in the 1990s in response to an increase in violent crime. Previously, inmates who had good behavior and met other conditions were eligible to serve the remainder of their sentences outside of prison, as long as they met with a parole officer and met other standards.

Those early release exceptions were reduced to a handful of conditions, such as the possibility of parole for elderly inmates.

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Today, Virginia has one of the lowest rates of parole in the country. Criminal justice advocates say the distinction is resulting in an unnecessary cost to taxpayers and keeping prisons full. Some legislators, experts and prison advocates say Virginia is long overdue for a rethink of its parole system.

The low rate is partially due to a bipartisan push to abolish parole in 1995. It was led by Republican Gov. George Allen, who says parole was a “dishonest way of operating” prior to the law change because prisoners did not serve out the full terms to which they were sentenced.

State Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, voted with Allen at the time. Deeds said much has changed since then.

“The whole idea of second chances and redemption was lost in the parole argument (in the 1990s),” he said. “But we’re, I think, we’re getting back there.”

The price of parole

Last year, Virginia’s prisons held roughly 25,000 people in the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections, which estimates each costs $42,000 a year to incarcerate.

Much of that is made up by medical costs, which grow as an incarcerated person grows older. Some cost as much as $100,000 annually to house and treat, according to a department report for 2022.

Parole, by comparison, costs $1,600, the report said. The difference, roughly $40,000, is that of a starting salary for a Virginia child care teacher.

States with similar population sizes — like New Jersey or Washington — keep half as many prisoners. New Jersey has roughly 13,000 prisoners behind bars, paroling over 15,000, according to 2020 statistics from the National Institute of Corrections.

Virginia’s parole numbers total 2,000 — a consequence of abolishing parole in 1995. The state kept a few exclusive types, like geriatric and juvenile parole. Geriatric parole applies to inmates over the age of 60. Juvenile parole is for those who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime.

Were Virginia to parole at a similar rate as New Jersey, the state would save $465 million in prison costs, an analysis by the Richmond Times-Dispatch found using 2020 numbers.

Primarily, it is the legislature and Virginia governors who calibrate the leniency of Virginia’s prison system. The Virginia Parole Board decides on individual cases.

In 2022, Gov. Glenn Youngkin fired all of former Gov. Ralph Northam’s parole board. The move delivered on promises from the campaign trail, where Youngkin hit Terry McAuliffe for his openness to discretionary parole and his appointment of Adrianne Bennett. Later, as chair of the board, Bennett broke state law by releasing a number of prisoners without notifying the families of victims, including an inmate who had killed a Richmond police officer.

Under Youngkin, releases plummeted while parole revocations jumped. Today, 3% of applicants actually win parole. Texas, by comparison, approves around 30%.

Parole board Chairman Chadwick Dotson did not return a request for comment regarding the drop in numbers.

The decline has been felt keenly by Allison Weiss, a law professor at Washington & Lee University. She sponsors a course twice a year in which her students assist Virginia parole applicants.

Weiss picks candidates who have a good shot at making it past the board. Typically, these are prisoners who have been infraction-free for years or who have earned diplomas and have loved ones waiting for them on the outside.

In the past year, none has been granted parole, Weiss said. Meanwhile, more and more inmates become parole-eligible, mostly as they grow older in prison. In 2021, 900 inmates over the age of 60 qualified, a threefold increase from 2014.

This year, Weiss’ students assisted a parolee diagnosed with bladder cancer.

“He was given a life expectancy of less than a year at the time that the student made the presentation before the parole board,” said Weiss, who did not have permission to share his name. “The board denied parole, and he died before he could go up again for review.”

Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for Youngkin, said parole decisions are “not solely based on cost, they are made based on ensuring the safety of our communities.”

National conversation about early release

Nationally, several state legislatures have moved to reduce sentences and expand parole, and have faced concerns from some victims’ rights advocacy groups.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice advocacy group, estimates the U.S. prison population has grown by 500% since the 1980s. Virginia’s prisons are similarly crowded, although the state’s total prison population dropped significantly at the onset of COVID-19.

Virginia state prisons also have about 2,000 job vacancies out of 12,000 positions.

The corrections department lost 743 employees going into this year, a drop that an internal report described as a “significant decline.” A lack of security officers has led to delayed medical visits, an exodus of medical staff, and frequent lockdowns in some of the state’s most crowded prisons.

The system has frayed at the seams. Greensville Correctional Center, a 3,000-person facility about an hour south of Richmond, is currently on lockdown after a series of overdoses and fires. Last Saturday, an inmate from Greensville escaped from two officers during a hospital trip to Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital in Henrico County, the DOC said. The department is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to his return.

State corrections officials did not respond to questions from The Times-Dispatch about support for expanding parole. The agency says it is successfully rehabilitating the incarcerated.

Each year, the agency highlights Virginia’s low rate of recidivism, a term for when a released prisoner reoffends and returns to jail. Virginia is second in the nation, the agency has said, with a recidivism rate around 21%.

Advocates voice skepticism.

“It’s working because no one is being released and people are dying in jail,” said Margaret Breslau, co-founder of the Virginia Prison Justice Network, which advocates for prisoners rights, such as abolishing solitary confinement. “The only way they’re going to bring back parole is when it breaks the system.”

Prisons and politics

In January, Dotson, the parole board chairman, released a report blaming former Democratic governors for the board’s state of disarray. Dotson’s report identified a backlog of 2,000 parole applications under Northam.

But Dotson also attributed it to an under-resourced parole board that did not have funds and staff to process a deluge of requests.

“We have parole-eligible inmates in Virginia, their numbers are rising, and that reality is not going away without further action by the General Assembly,” Dotson said.

That same month, Attorney General Jason Miyares released a scathing report on the parole board under Northam. The report pointed to the board’s decision to release over 130 inmates at the onset of COVID.

Miyares called this time period a “parole-granting frenzy.”

The report also identified a small handful of parolees who had reoffended.

“Under Chair Adrianne Bennett, the Virginia Parole Board endangered public safety and abused its power by releasing dozens of violent felons against Parole Board policies, and frequently in clear violation of a court order or Virginia law,” Miyares said.

In the legislature, Youngkin’s initial picks for the parole board were rejected by Senate Democrats. He has successfully appointed three members; however, a complete board should consist of five.

Porter, the governor’s spokeswoman, attributes the gridlock to partisanship.

“The Democrats’ partisan removal of Gov. Youngkin’s five parole board appointees have limited the scope of cases the board can process,” Porter said.

While Youngkin and Miyares have emphasized a tough-on-crime philosophy within the Republican Party, Allen made it a key priority in the mid-1990s. His 1993 campaign pushed for “truth-in-sentencing” — meaning victims and members of the public could trust that when someone was locked up for a crime, they were more likely to serve the entirety of their sentence.

“Violent crime was a major, major concern in those days,” Allen said in a recent interview. “When we abolished parole, it instituted a truth in sentencing.”

The law has remained in place, despite recent efforts at repeal. One attempt failed earlier this year in the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, where Sens. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, sided with the Republicans on the committee to kill the bill. (Saslaw is retiring, and Petersen lost his seat in a June primary.)

Allen said bipartisan support for eliminating discretionary parole in 1995 is part of why it has remained in place for almost 30 years. He believes it is working, citing lower crime rates in Virginia. Crime rates have dropped steadily since 1995. Since then, crime has dropped nationwide in states with and without parole.

Deeds said part of Allen’s argument was convincing because it did allow victims and members of the public more certainty when a person was sentenced for a crime.

“That’s why the truth in sentencing appealed to me as a young lawyer and a young legislator, but ‘no parole’ never really appealed to me,” he said. “But it was part of the deal.”

‘False indicators’

Deeds has since supported restoring discretionary parole.

“It seemed there were all sorts of bell curves that showed that crime was going to increase and we had to take steps,” he said. “And most of those bell curves were proven to be false indicators of future years. The worst did not pan out. But we abolished parole, and we were stuck with it.”

For years, neither Democrats nor Republicans moved to undo Allen’s parole abolishment. Efforts in recent years were unsuccessful, even when Democrats had control of the House, Senate and Executive Mansion.

But Deeds noted how the General Assembly expanded earned sentence credits for good behavior. That 2020 law change, when Democrats had control of both chambers and the mansion, meant that inmates could earn a maximum of 15 days credit for every 30 days served for nonviolent offenses.

While the law did not apply to certain violent crimes, an opinion by Miyares and a General Assembly-approved change from Youngkin in 2022 put the earned eligibility of hundreds of offenders in limbo.

The Supreme Court of Virginia recently ruled in favor of a case from Virginia’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that an inmate in Dillwyn Correctional Center was wrongfully denied his earned sentence credits.

Deeds said the ongoing reform efforts are a step in the right direction.

“It’s a step toward returning people to their families sooner,” he said.

The Clean Slate Act takes various forms in different states, but generally the legislation seals the criminal records of former prisoners after they’ve served their time. New York’s Clean Slate Act bill would automatically seal the records of offenders who have served their sentence plus stayed out of trouble for several years afterward three years for misdemeanors and seven years for most felonies. 


Luca Powell (804) 649-6103

lpowell@timesdispatch.com

@luca_a_powell on Twitter

Charlotte Rene Woods (804) 649-6254

cwoods@timesdispatch.com

@charlottewords on Twitter

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