by Hans Bader
The Virginia Senate has voted 24 to 15 to approve SB 842, the so-called “second look” bill. If it becomes law, inmates who have been in prison for 15 years or more could ask to be released, or ask for a reduction in their sentences. Originally, the bill applied to inmates of all types, but it was amended in the Senate Finance Committee to exclude first-degree murderers. Inmates released under second look legislation tend to be murderers (such as second-degree and first-degree murderers), although Oregon’s second look law excludes a few “aggravated” murders.
In 2022, the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate passed an earlier version of the second look bill by a 25 to 15 vote, but it then died in a subcommittee of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. That earlier bill was broader than this year’s bill in one way (it did not exclude even first-degree murderers such as serial killers) but narrower in another respect (it required inmates to meet specified “behavioral standards” in prison be released, which is not true of SB 842).
This bill faces an uncertain future in the House of Delegates. On the one hand, the bill is supported by many well-funded progressive interest groups with multi-million-dollar budgets, such as the ACLU, and supporters of the bill have massively out-lobbied opponents of the bill. On the other hand, it is opposed by the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, which most House Republicans pay attention to. And most Republicans already oppose the bill. Continue reading
In 2022, legislation allowing inmates to seek a reduction in their sentence after 15 years in prison passed the Virginia state Senate, but died in a 5-to-3 vote in a House subcommittee after a lobbyist for the bill boasted it would empty two entire Virginia prisons. The bill, SB 378, was viewed by House Republicans and many prosecutors as too radical. It was criticized because, unlike other early-release bills, it did not exclude from release even inmates who committed the most violent offenses, such as serial killings and aggravated murders (Class 1 felonies).
In 2023, this bill has been introduced again, as SB 842. It is still known as the “second-look” bill. But this time, even safeguards found in the original legislation, such as that inmates exhibit mostly good behavior in prison before being released, have been removed — inmates no longer need to meet such “behavioral standards” to be released.
The new bill also allows violent criminals to be released without a formal finding that they are no longer a danger to the victim or the victim’s family, or to the community. Such findings are required as a safeguard by “second-look” laws in other jurisdictions, such as the District of Columbia. Washington, DC’s municipal second-look law requires a finding “that the defendant is not a danger to the safety of any person or the community” before a sentence can be reduced. (See D.C. Code § 24-403.03(a)(2)). But no such finding is required under the Virginia second-look legislation just introduced. Unlike Oregon’s second-look legislation, which does not allow killers who committed “aggravated murder” to be released, the Virginia second-look legislation would allow petitions for sentence reductions by inmates of all kinds, including serial killers, child-killers, and cop-killers. Continue reading