Parole Board Bill: Minimal Benefit vs. Possible Harm

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Legislation to make the activities of the Parole Board a little more transparent has cleared one committee. The bill, SB 5 (Sutterlein, R-Roanoke) would require individual Parole Board member votes to be available to the public on request.

I understand the motives behind this bill. The call for more transparency, to know how each member voted on a parole decision, has appeal. However, I want to raise a few points of caution: (1) the transparency may decrease the independence or integrity of board members; and (2) the transparency that is provided will yield only an incomplete picture of the Board’s operations, thus leading to even more misunderstanding about the Board than now exists.

Regarding the first area of concern, the primary reason for not identifying individual Board members’ votes has been to protect them from retribution or intimidation. For example, according to the chairman of the Board, several members received threats following the granting of parole to Vincent Martin, who killed a Richmond policeman. Making the votes of individual Board members on each case available to the public could increase the possibility that their votes would be influenced to some extent by the fear of retaliation from angry members of the public or friends of the offender.

A general understanding of the process the Board uses in considering whether to grant parole to those eligible would be helpful in understanding the second caution I raised. (Here I need to add that I am basing the following comments and description on how the Board operated up until 2019. It may have changed those processes since then or the new Board that will be taking office soon may change the operations significantly.)

The common perception may be that the Parole Board convenes a meeting in which the eligible offender makes his case for parole and his supporters and the victim or the families of the victim make their arguments for or against the granting of parole. Reality is quite different.

With some exceptions, the members of the Board do not meet with the offenders personally. Rather, employees of the Board, called parole examiners, meet with each offender eligible for parole consideration. After each meeting, the parole examiners prepare a report for the Board members, summarizing the charges for which the offender was convicted, any prison discipline charges against the offender, and any positive activities in which the offender has been engaged while in prison, such as treatment programs, education, job training, etc. The report will conclude with a recommendation on whether parole should be granted.

There can be exceptions to this practice. The Board members may feel they need to meet personally with a specific offender. For example, there was one case in which several Board members met with an offender in the prison to which he was assigned. They wanted to follow up with the offender in person on some issues that had surfaced during the meeting with the parole examiner.

A Parole Board member will meet, upon request, with the victim and/or victim’s family whenever an offender is scheduled to be considered for parole. In fact, these meetings with victims, referred to as “Board appointments,” account for a large amount of the time put in by the Board members. Members will also meet with supporters of the offender, if time permits.

The Board members generally do not meet as a group to vote on granting parole to each eligible offender. Furthermore, not every Board member votes on each offender under consideration.

After the parole examiner’s report is complete, it is loaded into the Board’s computer system, along with any information relating to the offender under review.  Each Board member has access to a list of offenders in the queue awaiting a decision.  Even before the pandemic, most Board members conducted Board business, including voting on parole decisions, remotely.  They would come to Richmond only if the Board chair felt it necessary or helpful to have an in-person Board meeting.

The automated system is programmed to rotate the order in which offenders appear in each Board member’s queue. Thus, Board member Jones may have been the first, second, third, etc., member to review offender Peter Felon’s file. After reviewing the file, Jones would record a vote for or against granting parole, at which point the file would be rotated to the next board member on that specific rotation list.

There are five members of the Parole Board, of which at least two must, by law, be part-time. Under Board rules, it takes the agreement of three members for parole to be granted, except in the case of an offender serving a life sentence for first degree murder, for which four votes are required. After three yes or no votes are recorded on a pending case, the system is programmed to stop circulating the file. Thus, if members Jones, Smith, and Rogers are the first three members to review a case and each votes “no”, members Clark and Elliott do not review or vote on that case.

With this background in mind, it is apparent why making the individual member votes available to the public will provide only an incomplete picture of how any one board member approaches his or her responsibilities.

If a goal of the legislation is to provide transparency in order that the public understands why persons who have committed serious crimes are being released on parole, there is another reason that its advocates will be disappointed. The bill requires only that individual votes be made public on request. None of the background information that led to those votes will be made available. (Individual inmate records are exempt from the FOIA.)  Two examples from the December 2021 Parole Decision Report will illustrate this point. (Although the offenders’ names are listed in the report, I have used pseudonyms here.)

Joe Felon

  • Age: 56
  • Time served: 26 yrs. 7 mos.
  • Offenses: 2 counts of use of firearm in commission of felony; 1 count of malicious assault; 1 count, 2nd degree murder.
  • Parole decision: Grant
  • Reasons listed: Demonstrated rehabilitation; excellent institutional adjustment; infraction-free for over 24 months.

Paul Killer

  • Age: 55
  • Time served: 25 yrs. 7 mos.
  • Offenses: Use of firearm in commission of felony; 2nd degree homicide
  • Parole decision: Not grant
  • Reasons listed: Release at this time would diminish seriousness of crime; serious nature and circumstances of offense; Board concludes that you should serve more of your sentence prior to release on parole.

Two cases. Offenders similar age. Both convicted of murder. Both served about the same amount of time. One granted parole; the other denied parole. We are provided only general reasons for the decisions. The reasons for denial among those listed in boilerplate language the Board uses.

We do not know how the individual members voted on these cases, or even how many members participated on each decision. But, suppose (1) that each vote was 3-0, (2) that the proposed law had been in effect, and (3) Sherman Lea, Lethia Hammon, and Tonya Chapman (Board members at the time) were shown to have voted to grant parole for Joe Felon, but Tonya Chapman and the other two members were shown to have voted not to grant parole to Paul Killer, with no votes shown for Lea or Hammond on this case. It is very likely that there would have been howls that Lea and Hammond were being “too soft” because they voted to parole a murderer but did not vote to deny parole to another murderer. However, it could have well have been that, if all members had voted on each case , the vote would have been 5-0 in both cases.

The Parole Board in 2019 and 2020 failed to comply, in all instances, with the notification requirements set out in law and, in other instances, failed to follow its own internal policies. Furthermore, the Northam administration handled the whole situation badly. According to The Roanoke Times, Senator Sutterlein introduced the bill as a “measure to require greater transparency of parole board decisions in the wake of a Virginia government watchdog report that said the board violated the law and its own policies.” However, SB 5, requiring that the names of Board members voting on a parole decision be available upon request, is unrelated to whether the Board violated the law and its own policies. The chair of the Parole Board generally oversees and directs the day-to-day operations of the Board staff. If any laws or policies regarding procedures were violated, that would lay at the feet of the chair and that person’s name, of course, is known. Even if one felt that the entire Board should be accountable for such violations, the names of the Board members are public knowledge.

In summary, SB 5 will result in little public benefit and could cause harm. Its provisions are not related to the reported goal of the patron to further hold the Board members accountable for violations of procedural laws and policies. Implementation of the legislation would yield little information that would be useful to legislators or the public at large. But, enactment of the legislation could result in threats and intimidation aimed at Board members, undermining its integrity and credibility.

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17 responses to “Parole Board Bill: Minimal Benefit vs. Possible Harm”

  1. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    Fair comments. Road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
    I am always a little skeptical when political types claim they have been threatened. Cuz people never lie, right? And political types even less. Leave me alone for my horrible decision, I’m a victim! Someone said something mean to me!
    A better answer would probably be not appointing “equity” idiots to the Parole Board and to apply the law equally, regardless of “color.”
    Might want to try that…following the law…

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      I don’t doubt the threats, not in this environment. But the people making these decisions are public officials, and cannot be a secret star chamber operating totally in the dark.

      1. walter smith Avatar
        walter smith

        If you can’t stand the heat, get the H3!! out of the kitchen?

  2. Atlas Rand Avatar

    I think peoples viewpoints are probably informed mostly by how they view parole generally, and the justice system at large. Many people, and advocates view the justice system as a rehabilitation system, whereas I want it to be a punitive system, particularly with regards to murder. It’s my opinion that the primary purpose of the system should be to obtain justice for victims, and to rehabilitate secondarily. For example, if someone robs me, I can be compensated for my loss, no need to send someone to prison for 10 years. However, in the case of murder, I can’t abide parole or a sentence resulting in anything less than life imprisonment. Taking a life is something that can never be undone. You’ve taken the most valuable and precious things that any of us possess, you’ve created a gaping hole in others lives that can never be filled. There is no amount of compensation or penance that can repay that wrong. I no longer advocate for the death penalty, because I recognize the systemic issues with it, and it provides a solution for which there are no corrections if determined to be wrong. But for murdering another human beings, a criminal should not see the light of day ever again. Any Board that so delegitimizes the gravity of killing someone to allow said perpetrator to walk free and breathe free air again should not stand.

    1. For example, if someone robs me, I can be compensated for my loss, no need to send someone to prison for 10 years.

      What if the perpetrator can’t or won’t compensate you?

      1. Atlas Rand Avatar

        Then prison it is. My point being is that some crime can be compensated fairly, achieving justice for the victim without punitive prison sentences. Murder cannot, and the only sentence that serves even a modicum of “justice” to the victim is life imprisonment.

        1. I agree with you about murder.

    2. For example, if someone robs me, I can be compensated for my loss, no need to send someone to prison for 10 years.

      Maybe I’m not understanding you correctly, but are you saying a crime is to be forgiven — and therefore go without punishment — if the victim can be fairly compensated?

      Someone could make a great movie as to how the world would look in 10 years after that practice was put in place.

  3. I agree with you about the current “transparency bill”. It will not prevent future ideologically motivated members of parole boards from ignoring the laws under which they are required to operate and releasing unrepentant criminals on our society without warning.

    I do wish there was a way to punish every single member of any parole board which engages in such behavior, though.

    EDITED to remove unjustified descriptor.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      They were fired en masse. That count?

      1. Not really. Perhaps a large fine on top of the firing?

        I don’t know, though, I’m in a bit of a draconian mood this morning. Perhaps we should require them to finish out the sentence of the most heinous criminal they knowingly released on society without warning us?


        1. Matt Adams Avatar

          I’d say if they were party to a release of someone who committed another heinous crime, they should be charged with “Aiding and Abetting”, themselves.

          1. That might work.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      “Unrepentant”? How do you know they were unrepentant? One of the criteria that the Parole Board has has used is whether an offender has shown remorse.

      1. Good point. I do not know.

        I hereby retract the final adjective in the first paragraph of the above comment.

  4. Give the community the criminal is going to return to a vote/veto in the decision — the Board members have no skin in the game — I doubt any live anywhere near where the criminal is going to reside. This interaction can easily be done via ZOOM from a local firehouse, police station, public library, etc. LET THE STAKE HOLDERS decide, not some far away person who won’t be harmed when the criminal commits another crime upon release!

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