by Sarah Scarbrough
What does “worked” mean? What does “success” truly mean? If it means having offenders spend the majority of their sentence behind bars and don’t get released early, then, sure, it worked. If it means seeing crime rates drop, then one could argue it worked. But, there are so many other factors associated – really, so many factors that it is close to impossible to give a definitive answer one way or another. So here goes – my attempt to explain many of the associated factors.
Former Governor George Allen’s plan to abolish parole could be seen as a “success” in that it established truth in sentencing through the requirement that felons served 85% of the time they were sentenced. When looking at the Virginia statistics 12 years after (2008), it was found that those convicted of first-degree murder spent 91 percent of their sentence in prison, with the average sentence being 32 years, rather than 12 years with parole. The sentence of “life in prison,” now truly means “life in prison.”
Since abolishing parole, the violent crime rate in Virginia fell by 23 percent, the murder rate decreased by 30 percent, and forcible rape decreased by 15 percent. When examining the crimes and statistics before 1995, it was found that previous offenders committed the majority of these serious and violent offenses; therefore if a rapist serves 18 years rather than six years, he will not be able to hang out in parking lots waiting for his next victim.
However, the reason for the decline in the crime rates is debatable and hard to pin down. Many believe it is because of the abolition of parole – Virginia releases fewer people than ever before. The idea is that individuals “age-out” of crime when released now because they spend longer behind bars. However, the relatively new phenomenon of re-entry, programs, and treatment also likely is contributing to the decrease. Historically, upon incarceration, offenders were simply warehoused – they were not provided with an opportunity for programming, thus, breeding better criminals during incarceration. However, with today’s strong focus on providing opportunities, offenders are now being equipped with the tools to be successful upon release. They are being provided with tools that directly assist in overcoming the barriers to entry into the community. Furthermore, according to Dr. John Reitzel, with the Department of Criminal Justice at California State University, San Bernardino, “Both violent and property crime started dropping in Virginia a few years before the state abolished parole. And, we must keep in mind that nationally, crime started dropped in 1993 too.”
The examination of recidivism rates also can provide some insight, however, this too is fairly complex. Currently, Virginia has the second lowest recidivism rate in the nation. However, that rate is calculated if an individual gets released from prison and then goes back to prison – this means they are convicted of a crime and sentenced to more than 12 months. So, if someone reoffends and is found guilty but sentenced to 11 months, they are not seen to have recidivated. I believe this truly presents a problem when truly trying to define success. From working in a jail full time, I can tell you the true recidivism rate in Virginia is much higher than this statistic claims.
There are also problems present with the implementation and practice of the abolition of parole. Currently there are more than 37,000 individuals incarcerated in Virginia, of whom about 3,500 were eligible for parole in 2013 because their crimes and imprisonment occurred before the abolition in 1995. The Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants-Virginia, Inc. (Virginia C.U.R.E.) claim that all of these prisoners were sentenced by prosecutors and judges with the assumption that the length of their sentence would be subject to mitigation through the consideration of parole. However, because parole was abolished, the likelihood of receiving it is slim. In 2012, the Parole Board heard 3,156 cases, of which only 116 were granted parole, according to Virginia C.U.R.E. – this is just 3.7 percent of those who were eligible. However, Bill Muse former Chairman of the Parole Board under the McDonnell administration had slightly different views: “The rate during McDonnell administration was about 4%. About 92% of those who were eligible were serving long sentences on extreme cases. The “easy” ones were already released.”
At least 44 percent of the denials were attributed to the “serious nature and circumstances of the crime.” As such, many prisoners were receiving this same response year after year. Moreover, many denials from the Board did not suggest their own comments or guidelines, such as changes in behavior, their motivational levels, development of education, release plans, or employment skills attained while imprisoned. However, in 2013 legislation was passed and then signed by Governor McDonnell requiring the Parole Board to list specific reasons why an individual was denied so the individual would know what they should or should not be focusing on.
Muse explained: “Every parole case is entirely different and you have to look at them differently. One of the common questions asked is, ‘He got parole and has a similar offense doing the same number of years as my son, so why won’t you let him go?’ But we have to look at them differently – there aren’t two offenses that are exactly the same – one type of murder may occur because of a drug deal gone bad and the other an execution style robbery – even if they have the same sentence, they are still very different. We also have to take into consideration when the crime occurred – a 16- or 17-year-old would be considered differently than someone older because of their age when committed.”
Muse explained how the parole board also examines things the offender was involved with while in prison and if they took advantage of each opportunity they had, such as work, religion, or schooling. Disciplinary issues while incarcerated are also considered – did they cause staff a hard time, did they obey the rules? “If you can’t behave in prison, why would we expect you to behave when you are on the street,” Muse remarked. The Board also looked at factors associated with release – supportive family, housing, under what circumstances will they live (in same neighborhood), will they continue with addiction treatment if needed, among others? “All of these things are taken into consideration – and more really. All of these factors contribute to why each case is treated individually.
The Board does not personally interview the prisoner or confer with the prisoner’s counselor and only allows one member of the Board to meet with a family member or other representative. In over 70 percent of other states, however, Board panels carry out inmate interviews. Under the Board procedures currently followed, “some parole eligible inmates are serving longer terms than some non-parole inmates convicted of the same crime and sentenced under the state’s post 1995 sentencing guidelines” Many believe that the Board’s behaviors are inconsistent with the original intention of the General Assembly, through retroactively abolishing parole for prisoners who came in before 1995. Continue reading