State Senator Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, has proposed legislation to make parole available to even the most violent offenders, including those who were given shorter sentences due to the lack of existence of parole at the time they were sentenced. The proposal includes a bill to make parole available to all types of offenders at all ages (SB 112), a bill to make parole available to all offenders who committed crimes as juveniles (SB 110), and a bill to make parole available for people who committed crimes before age 21 (SB 109).
Legislation making parole available to offenders of all ages was proposed but not approved in 2021. It might pass the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate this year, but is very likely to die in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. So SB 112 is likely to die.
Senator Morrissey’s other bills, aimed at paroling more youthful offenders, have better prospects for passage, but still have a good chance of being defeated.
In the past, the Virginia legislature passed legislation to make criminals who committed crimes as juveniles eligible for parole after 20 years. Morrissey’s SB 109 would make such offenders eligible for parole much sooner, after serving a minority of their sentence, even if their sentence is less than 10 years. Similarly, his SB 110 would make offenders who commit crimes before age 21 eligible for parole after serving only a minority of their sentence.
By releasing youthful violent criminals earlier, Morrissey’s bills could result in more killings of innocent people. Murder rates peak in the late teens and early 20s. About four in ten killers commit their crime before age 25. A tenth of all murders have historically been committed by juveniles, and, once released, juvenile killers often commit more violent crimes, including more murders.
Making parole available would allow many criminals to be released after serving just one-fourth of their sentence. Under Virginia law, most first-time offenders would be eligible for parole after serving “one-fourth” of their sentence, and most second-time offenders would be eligible for parole after serving “one-third” of their sentence.
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. Most willful and premeditated murders are Class 2 offenses, for which parole would be available after a mere 15 years, or substantially less than 15 years if parole is restored.
Morrissey’s bills would retroactively make parole available to offenders sentenced at a time when parole was not available. Retroactively making prisoners eligible for parole could result in unfair double-counting: it would 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.
By reducing the amount of time inmates serve, restoring parole could increase the crime rate. Studies indicate that longer periods of incarceration deter many crimes from being committed; they don’t merely prevent people who are already inmates from committing more crimes — although they do that, too. For example, a study found that longer sentences deterred people from committing murder, robbery, and rape.
Supporters of parole argue that offenders age out of crime, or that parole boards can tell whether an offender has reformed and is no longer dangerous.
But parole boards don’t always get it right. So murderers kill again after being paroled. One example is Kenneth McDuff, the “broomstick killer.” At the age of 19, McDuff and an accomplice kidnapped three other teenagers. He shot and killed two boys, then killed a girl after raping her and torturing her with burns and a broomstick. After being paroled, he murdered as many as 15 women across several states.
Some murderers continue to kill even at an advanced age. At the age of 76, Albert Flick murdered a woman, stabbing her at least 11 times while her twin children watched. He had previously been imprisoned from 1979 to 2004 for killing his wife by stabbing her 14 times in front of her daughter.
Restoring parole could result in Virginia having a high crime rate like neighboring Maryland, which has parole. Maryland has a violent crime rate more than double Virginia’s. In 2018, Maryland had a violent crime rate of 468.7 per 100,000 people, according to USA Today, compared to a violent crime rate of only 200 per 100,000 in Virginia.
Forty years ago, Virginia’s Fairfax County had a similar crime rate to Montgomery County, Md., which is demographically and economically similar. But that changed after prison sentences became longer in Virginia, and Virginia eliminated parole. Fairfax County ended up with a much lower crime rate than Montgomery County.
Hans Bader is an attorney residing in Northern Virginia.