Big Prison Releases Likely as Legislators Exploit Pandemic

by Hans Bader

With the public distracted by the pandemic, Virginia’s liberal legislature is likely to pass laws that would release many prisoners. A special legislative session begins on August 18, to address criminal-justice and COVID-19 issues. The Democratic Caucus has agreed to expand good-time credits for prisoners, effectively shortening their sentences. Parole would be reinstated in Virginia, if legislation proposed by state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, has his way. Virginia largely abolished parole in 1995, but Edwards, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would not only reinstate it, but apply parole retroactively to people already convicted of crimes. Legislation proposed by Sen.John Bell, D-Chantilly, would expand geriatric parole for inmates who have committed any type of crime, except those who have committed Class 1 (capital) murder.

Cumulatively, these bills would result in shorter average sentences for inmates. Shorter sentences can lead to an increased crime rate, while longer sentences tend to reduce the crime rate. The National Bureau of Economic Research has a web page titled “Sentence Enhancements Reduce Crime.” It discusses how California’s Proposition 8 reduced crime by keeping “repeat offenders” off of the streets. According to the study it cites, “Because convicted criminals were serving longer sentences, years after the law’s change they were still locked up, rather than out on the streets committing crime.” Murderers sometimes commit murder again after being released from prison, even those released from prison at an advanced age.

Virginia largely abolished parole 25 years ago, due to discontent over the fact that criminals were serving only about 30% of their sentences before being released. But parole would be restored even for murderers and rapists by Edwards’ bill, SB 5016. It would retroactively extend parole rights to current inmates, as well as giving future criminals the right to seek parole. Most willful and premeditated murders are Class 2 offenses, for which parole would be available after 15 years.

Retroactively making prisoners eligible for parole could result in unfair double-counting: It could shorten sentences that a jury already shortened based on the assumption that parole does not exist. Under the Virginia Supreme Court’s Fishback decision, criminals have been entitled to seek a shorter sentence from the jury based on the argument that parole was not available.

Parole can be sought annually: before parole was abolished, relatives of murder victims would show up at parole hearings, every year, in an effort to keep the killer of their loved one from being released. Testifying before the parole board took its toll on survivors, forcing them to relive the crime.

Hans Bader is an attorney living in Northern Virginia. This column was published originally at Liberty Unyielding.

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19 responses to “Big Prison Releases Likely as Legislators Exploit Pandemic

  1. Pingback: Virginia May Release Many Inmates Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter or Other Crimes | CNSNews

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