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I just learned that an older comrade of mine was denied parole for the 10th time! It seems that the abolition of parole in VA in 1995 has had an unofficial retroactive effect upon those who remain parole-eligible from before 1995. The Virginia legislature abolished parole back in 1995 for people who committed crimes on or after January 1, 1995. However, of the state’s 38,000 prisoners, approximately 4,300 are still eligible for parole because they committed their crimes before 1995. This post is to express my concern and solidarity with those prisoners affected by the Virginia Parole Board’s (VPB) parole denials that contain no explanation of the VPB’s decisions other than standard boilerplate terminology, without reference to efforts about rehabilitation or other facts that the VPB may have considered.

Effective July 1, 2013, VA Code Section 53.1-136 was amended to reflect the enactment of new parole review legislation. Introduced by VA Delegate Mark Sickles, this legislation amended the powers and duties of the VPB to require that the VPB shall:

“Ensure that each person eligible for parole receives a timely and thorough review of his suitability for release on parole, including a review of any material and post-sentencing factors. If parole is denied, the basis for the denial of parole shall be in writing and shall give fact-specific individualized reasons for such denial to such inmate.”

This new statute was intended to address the VPB’s longstanding practice of systematically denying parole to suitable candidates based solely on a form letter listing standard reasons, such as “serious nature and circumstance of your offense” or “release at this time would diminish the seriousness of crime.” Standing alone, such conclusory terms as the basis for denying parole has been held by VA lawmakers to be inadequate. Two years has passed since this new legislation was unanimously approved by the VA Senate Rehabilitation and Services Committee and unanimously passed by both chambers of the VA General Assembly. Yet, the VPB still has not complied with this legislation and thus has not made appropriate changes to its policy, i.e. individualized reasons accompanied by suggestions for action undertaken by a particular inmate that would result in parole. The VPB, in clear violation of this mandatory legislation, continues to provide parole-eligible inmates nothing more than a simple form letter answer, listing the two most often used reasons above, when denying parole.

While it may be true that the General Assembly is not requiring an elaborate, detailed analysis of the reasoning underlying the denial of parole in an individual case, the VA General Assembly’s action regarding parole review and denials is evidence that members of the General Assembly are of the opinion that justice and fairness requires that the reasons given to parole applicants provides a meaningful reason for parole denials.

Since it has been determined that an inmate is entitled to a “thorough review of…suitability for release on parole” and “specific reasons for denial,” members of the VA legislature have allowed the VPB to use anything it chooses to call a “reason” to satisfy the requirement of VA Code Section 53.1-136. Even though the VA General Assembly created this legislation, its failure to hold the VPB accountable for it repeated failure to adhere to this Code affords an inmate a right but no remedy with which to enforce it. In contrast, if an ordinary citizen breaks the law, he/she is charged and brought before a court of law to be prosecuted. Why is the VPB allowed to break the law by not adhering to the mandatory provisions of VA Code Section 53.1-136 with no accountability?

The VPB’s repeated violation of VA Code Section 54.1-146
disproportionately affects Black inmates (many of them elderly) who make up 67% of the 4,300 parole-eligible inmates. Before 1995 parole grant rate was over 40%. Since then, the parole grant rate has plunged to less than 3% for those still eligible, among the lowest rate in the nation. In 1999, VA had just over 2,000 inmates who were 50 or older. By 2009, that number has more than doubled. An extremely low parole grant rate for parole-eligible (pre-1995) inmates and the abolition of parole for post-1995 inmates has contributed to VA’s aging prison population. And it is only expected to get worse in this era of mass incarceration and the warehousing of America’s poor.

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