This is the first of two articles on the abolition of parole in Virginia.
by Sarah Scarbrough
Fathers’ Day of 1986 was tragic — Detective George Taylor of the City of Richmond Police Department stopped a vehicle for a routine traffic violation. After being pulled over, the driver, Wayne DeLong, shot and killed Taylor. Later, it was found that DeLong had recently been paroled after serving a portion of his sentence for murder. A few years later, in 1991, Leo Webb, a divinity student at Virginia Union University in Richmond came across another man, James Steele, who appeared to need assistance. Because of his kind heart, Webb stopped to help Steele. Later, Steele went into the bakery where Webb worked, shot and killed him, took his money, and then went out and partied. Again, it was found that Steele was on parole for malicious wounding.
From 1990 to 1995, Virginia experienced a 28% increase in violent crimes like the ones explained above. Furthermore, three out of four violent crimes, including rape, murder, robbery and assault, were committed by recidivists. Because of these stories and statistics, when George Allen was running for Governor of Virginia in 1993, a main focus of his campaign was on a promise for parole reform. Many believe that this campaign promise was one of the major reasons that he won the election. The politics involved with “getting tough on crime” typically is very popular among voters. Violent crimes, victimization, or a related type of crime has in some way impacted the majority of families and individuals in the United States. Therefore, the policy stance of “truth in sentencing” and “abolishing parole” was a great talking point and issue. On the other hand, during the campaign, many opponents believed this plan would cost too much and that it was too drastic of a measure.
Upon victory, Allen immediately acted on his campaign promise of abolishing parole. He established in the Commission on Parole Abolition and Sentencing Reform in 1994, a bipartisan group of judges, crime victims, prosecutors, business leaders, law-enforcement officers, and legal professionals. Further, he called a special session of the General Assembly in September of 1994, in order to have the full attention of the public and legislators on this matter. The Allen administration and other supporting legislators displayed the urgency of implementing these measures. It was shared that those convicted of a felony were only serving about one third of their sentence and there were many serving only one sixth. The average sentence for a first-degree murder was 35 years and only about 10 years were actually served. There were rapists who were sentenced to nine years and only serving four, and armed robbers were serving four of their fourteen-year sentence.
In order to begin changing the laws, discretionary parole needed to be eliminated. Discretionary parole was when an offender would serve a portion of their sentence and be released by the parole board for ‘good behavior.’ Thus, an offender would receive 30 days off their sentence for every 30 days served that they were ‘good.’ As an alternative to encourage good behavior, wardens would be able to offer sentence credits, which could equal up to 54 days off per year; a drastic reduction from the average of 300 days that were granted previously.
In order for judges to be effective in their sentencing, guidelines were also developed. In doing so, recidivism rates and age relation to those rates were studied. It was found that the longer the inmate spent in jail and the older they were upon release, the less likely they were to engage in further illegal behavior. After age 37, the likelihood of recidivating decreased drastically. Clearly, the main objective of these reforms was to prevent future violent behaviors, but the idea of future revenge had to be taken into account as well. The Commonwealth wanted to send violent criminals a message that Virginia would not tolerate violent behavior, and if such a crime was committed they would stay in prison until they were “too old to commit another one.” As a result, Virginia increased prison time for violent criminals as follows:
- 100 percent increase for first-time violent offenders
- 125 percent for first-time murderers, rapists, and armed robbers
- 300 percent for those with previous convictions for assault, burglary, or malicious wounding
- 500 percent for those with previous convictions for murder, rape, or armed robbery
In addition, everyone convicted of a violent crime must serve a minimum of 85 percent of the time they were sentenced. Throughout the United States, a criminal typically serves an average of 50 percent of the time they were sentenced.
Through the mildest estimates of actual crimes and convictions, it was found that 4,300 violent felony crimes between 1986 and 1993 would have been prevented, if the ‘Allen plan’ were in place. It was projected that from implementation in 1995 to 2005, 119,000 felonies would be prevented in Virginia, with 26,000 of these being violent crimes. Through this, it is thought that 475 lives would be saved, 3,700 women would not be raped, and over 11,300 armed robberies would not occur. As a result, this would save the public $2.7 billion in direct costs.
Taking effect January 1, 1995, the Allen administration pushed through legislation that placed increased penalties on murder, armed robbery, and rape. The principle of truth in sentencing was created, as well as abolishing parole and increasing the time a violent criminal would spend in jail by five times. However, opponents argued that abolishing of parole would be the “declaration of war on young black males.” These people insisted that Virginia spend more money on prevention programs, rather than simply focusing on punishment that was a result of “white fear.” These arguments were not heard favorably. It was also argued that the new laws would actually benefit the African American community, which was one fifth of Virginia’s population, more than any other race. Of the ‘preventable’ murders between 1986 and 1993, 65% of the victims were African American. Of the assaults during the same time period, approximately 60% of the victims were African American.
Before the abolition of parole in 1995, Virginia was spending $658 million of taxpayers’ money on recidivists. This number included costs of new arrests, investigations, and trials. Further, from 1995 to 2005, the estimated cost needed to build new prisons to hold the steadily increasing population was $750 million. Although the new parole laws would require new prisons, the prison population would not double, as it was estimated to do if the new laws were not enacted.
Next: Did parole abolition work?
Sarah Scarbrough is internal program director for the City of Richmond sheriff’s department.