Bill Would Release Inmates Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter

by Hans Bader

Virginia’s legislature has a good chance of releasing many prison inmates guilty of involuntary manslaughter. In its special session this August, legislators plan to pass Senate Bill 5034, which would shorten many inmates’ sentences by increasing the number of credits they receive for good behavior while in prison. The bill would not apply to people who commit rape or murder, but it would benefit inmates who committed many other serious offenses: involuntary manslaughter and other crimes such as drunk driving, home invasions, and assaults that injured people but were not intended to kill or maim. It would apply even to inmates whose crimes are part of a long pattern of criminal activity. So, career criminals could be released — like the habitual drunk driver who kills someone after driving drunk many times, or the career thief who steals millions of dollars.

Right now prison inmates in Virginia who avoid major misbehavior receive good-behavior credits. The credits give them a 4.5 day reduction in their sentence for every 30 days in which they behave. For the majority of Virginia inmates, Senate Bill 5034 would increase that reduction. For many, that reduction would eventually rise to “one day for each one day served” — nearly seven times the current rate. (In the first year of such good behavior, they would receive up to 13 days reduction in their sentence for every 30 days served, triple the current reduction; in the second year of such good behavior, they would receive up to 16 days off for every 30 days served; in the third year, up to 20 days off; in the fourth year, up to 25 days off; and in the fifth and any consecutive year thereafter, they would get up to a full day off their sentence for each day served.)

Shortening criminals’ sentences will increase crime rates. The National Bureau of Economic Research notes that longer sentences “reduce crime,” citing research in the Journal of Law & Economics.

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.

ABC’s channel 7 discussed this in 2019 in “Why is Montgomery County’s violent crime rate twice as high as neighboring Fairfax County.” Law enforcement sources attributed Montgomery’s higher crime rate to the fact “that the Maryland Judiciary is, generally speaking, more lenient on criminal defendants” and the fact that “Virginia has stricter laws on the books” and “harsh sentences,” which are “a huge deterrent” to crime. “Criminals know if you commit crime in Virginia you might get whacked, while in Maryland, you might just get slapped on the wrist.”

Senate Bill 5034 has a good chance of passage, because it was approved by a committee on August 18, in an 8-to-7, party-line vote. It is backed by most Senate Democrats, ten of whom sponsored it. Senator Boysko, D-Herndon, attempted to broaden the bill to give many murderers access to increased good-behavior credits, but her amendment failed on a 7-to-8 vote.

Releasing career criminals early is harmful to our society and our economy. If not kept in prison, a career criminal can inflict hundreds of thousands of dollars of economic harm every year, far more than the cost of jailing that criminal. A 1998 study in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology estimated that there were “$165,000 in victim costs per year of a criminal’s career” for a typical “career criminal,” including “lost wages and medical bills” and “lost quality of life to victims.”

Of course, not all crimes have victims. Some people are in state prisons for victimless crimes, such as drug possession. The sentence reductions in Senate Bill 5034 would make sense for drug offenders, whose sentences are already long enough. But most prison inmates aren’t in there for drugs. In 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 55% of state prison inmates in America were there for “violent offenses,” and only 15% for drug crimes (such as drug dealing and manufacturing). And most people in prison for drug crimes are not there just for using drugs: As the progressive Marshall Project noted in 2015, “Only 4 percent” of state prison inmates “are there for drug possession. An additional 12 percent are incarcerated for drug sales, manufacturing, or trafficking.”

Senate Bill 5034 should be revised to exclude more serious crimes from its sentence reductions, such as those who commit involuntary manslaughter or steal millions of dollars, or repeat offenders who assault others, drive drunk, or commit home invasions or other serious burglaries. Right now, if a crime does not qualify as a specified “act of violence” under Virginia Code § 19.2-297.1, or a specified “felony offense in Article 4” of Title 18.2, Chapter 8, the offender is eligible for a shorter sentence under Senate Bill 5034, regardless of how repeatedly the criminal violated the law, or how much harm the offender inflicted.

It makes sense to give inmates good-behavior sentence credits as an incentive to behave in prison. But Virginia law’s current 4.5 day reduction for 30 days of good behavior is already incentive enough. Senate Bill 5034 would increase that reduction by an amount far more than what’s needed to provide an incentive to behave — up to 30 days off for every 30 days they behave after five years.

Such huge reductions are really a form of parole, not a mere incentive for good behavior. Virginia largely abolished parole in 1995, because it was unpopular and unwise to let criminals out of prison when they had not served most of their sentence.

(There is also legislation pending in Virginia to reinstate parole. But that legislation, SB 5016, will probably not pass in this special session of the legislature. It does not yet appear to have the support of the full Democratic caucus, and Virginia’s state senate is split 21-to-19 in favor of Democrats, meaning almost all Democrats must support a bill for it to pass. That legislation would allow even murderers and rapists to be paroled, with most premeditated murderers being eligible for parole after 15 years. I discussed the pitfalls of that legislation at this link and this link.)

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

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30 responses to “Bill Would Release Inmates Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter

  1. Recidivism: Virginia — 23.4%. Maryland — 40.5%

    Somebody doing something right. Somebody not.

    “Level IV. No earned sentence credits shall be awarded to any inmate who fails to participate in and cooperate with all **programs** to which the inmate is assigned pursuant to § 53.1-32.1 or who causes substantial security or operational problems at the correctional facility.”

    Programs??

    Hmmm, maybe it’s not the sentence length, but the **programs** designed to prevent recidivism, for which prisoners receive sentence credits when they attend, that explains the difference between the States. Whaddayathunk, eh?

    Ah, the dichotomy of rehabilitation and punishment…

    • “Utah’s current recidivism rate is around 70 percent. The recidivism rate for prisoners who earn a bachelor’s degree during their incarceration is less than 15 percent.May 1, 2017”

      Programs… hmmm, programs that rehabilitate… I wonder if they work?

    • Raw recidivism rates are interesting, but there may be more to the story. While any criminal activity is a problem, I would be most concerned with those who commit violent crimes after leaving prison.

      Would an arrest for small quantities of marijuana be weighted equally with murder or rape?

      I don’t think I would be willing to compare success rates without a better understanding of the crimes committed after release. If you have links to this data, I would appreciate it if you would share them.

      • Nate, I was only pointing out that Bader is freaking out over a “successful” State making adjustments to the reward portion of its rehabilitation programs, and those efforts to return prisoners to society as productive members with a readily available metric.

        I have not studied recidivism to the extent that you seek. Apparently, from what I saw incidentally, the recidivism rate drops like a stone when addiction is not involved, specifically opioids, which tells me that the Perdue(?) family should be flayed, not the prisoners.

        Bader is convinced that draconian measures are the road to success by myopically looking at neighboring counties across state lines. It’s possible he is right, possible but unlikely.

        I do think it’s ironic that the target of his ire is, as clearly stated in the headline, involuntary perpetrators, which brings into question, “How do you rehabilitate a person who commits a crime described as ‘involuntary’?”

        I mean, the word describes someone who is not likely to do it again considering he didn’t intend to do it the first time, eh?

        • To better understand where I’m coming from, let me tell you that I work in information technology. Servers produce voluminous logs. More data and numbers than any human can consume. When I was responsible for that area, it was necessary to sort through that mountain of data to find the golden nuggets information which would help to solve the issue at hand. They say the devil is in the details. I believe that’s also where the gold is. I’m a details guy.

          Anyway, that’s the approach I think might be beneficial with regard to incarceration and recidivism. There’s lots of information, but which data points are most important, and what can they tell us?

          You mentioned involuntary manslaughter for example. Involuntary manslaughter can take many forms, but there are two broad categories – constructive manslaughter (unlawful dangerous act which results in death) and gross negligence manslaughter (a lawful act which results in death). Should these be treated the same? I don’t know, but there may be a nugget there.

          And was the crime committed really involuntary manslaughter anyway? Or was the crime actually something else, but the perpetrator was able to negotiate a plea agreement to reduce the charge? Does it matter? It might.

          This may not interest you, but if digging through these kinds of details helped to be able to release those who were not a danger to society, while keeping those who were a danger safely behind bars, I think it would be worth the effort.

          • Ya know, you’re right. The nugget is in there, but so is that devil. I think we’ve already found that nugget, too. We may have already collected the data, and have developed the methods to determine the social from sociopath; the rehabilitated from the incorrigible.

            I think the answer is clear, but we’d have to take 1/3 of the habitable land mass to build a prison if we could use it. I believe those experts, the psychiatrists and criminologists, who have long said that there are more psychopaths out there than you can imagine, and that we just don’t know it because they just haven’t killed anyone, yet.

            And, “by killed anyone”, I mean exhibited the aberrant behavior that gets them incarcerated. Instead, they find some other outlet, a non criminal method to torture their fellow man. There’s one in the White House.

            The real irony is that Mark Zuckerberg, who displays the kind of narcissism associated with psychopathy, has built the very tool that exposes the extent of it in society.

            But, to the smaller issue of identifying which among those, who have run afoul of law, who are within our clutches, and will repeat offend, I guess we have to rely on the **programs** and the tweaks to them that drew Hans Bader’s rath.

            BTW, those who advocate for draconian sentences rather than weeding out those who can return to a life well lived, well… that may be a sign. Eh?

  2. The bill came out of the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee, 8-7, but was re-referred to Finance and Appropriations. That will remain a significant hurdle, and it is a serious stretch to consider this a “COVID” bill given they’ve been pushing this since well before the pandemic. But the opening of this special session, especially in the House, has been so chaotic that predictions are difficult. Perhaps there are no limits on what can be considered.

    This is just something the Democrats are hot to do. Not sure why, but the voters put them in power. There have already been horror stories about subsequent offenses by people being let out, even the murder of a victim/witness, but as long as the voting public stays focused on the TV reality shows and the Tik-Tok videos, who will care?

    The Senate is functioning, churning out bills that have only been on the system for review for a day or two. The House is floundering, embarrassing itself with its refusal to just get the work done. Seating 20 feet apart and they are still afraid to meet?

    • “There have already been horror stories about subsequent offenses by people being let out, ”

      So the many must suffer for the actions of the few?

      Well, that makes sense of the Republican’s and Kovid Kerry’s opposition to wearing a mask, now don’t it?

      170,000 witnesses dead.

      • “So the many must suffer for the actions of the few?”

        There is nothing new about that – it’s the basis for many of the laws, rules and regulations which are imposed upon us.

    • The recent horror story of a murder of a victim/witness concerned someone arrested and released on bond, not an offender released from prison earlier than first expected. I have not heard any stories of offenses committed by offenders released from prison early.

  3. As he did in a previous post, Hans Bader has misrepresented this bill. The maximum earned sentence credit of “a day for day” would be earned only by inmates who had been in Level I for five years of more.

    The bill does not define the Levels it uses (a serious drafting error), so I will assume they refer to the security levels DOC uses to classify its inmates. Level I is the lowest security level. The lowest risk offenders, primarily drug offenders and property offenders, are placed in this security category. Because most offenders in this category have sentences of less than five years remaining at the time of their Level I classification, very few will ever achieve the maximum earned sentence credit level. In June of this year, the average daily population of Level I security facilities was 1,792, which was 6.5 percent of the total average daily population.

    Mr. Bader says, without any evidence, that “many” would get the maximum proposed earned sentence credit. The reality is that few would get it. Furthermore, he implies that the enhanced earned sentence credits would apply to most inmates, whereas it would apply to only about 6 or 7 percent of the population. He also says that sentences would be reduced. That is incorrect. The bill does not deal with sentences imposed by courts. It deals with earned sentence credits that can reduce the amount of time an offender serves in prison on his sentence. These credits are not automatic. As their title says, they must be earned by good behavior and participation in programs.

    Although the bill does not yet have a fiscal impact statement (it was not filed until Friday, thereby giving DPB little time to prepare a FIS), it will be costly for DOC to implement, because it will have to make extensive changes to the code underlying the automated system used to calculate the length of one’s sentence left to be served.

    As for Steve Haner’s wondering how this is a COVID bill, it is not. Rather, it falls into the “criminal justice reform” category, which is included in the House resolution. This topic has been on the preliminary “wish lists” of the House and Senate.

    • Why does Dick Hall-Sizemore “assume” the bill’s four levels are the same as the four levels currently used in the Department of Corrections’ four-level classification system? The bill gives its own definition of each level.

      Admittedly, those definitions themselves seem to partly incorporate existing policy about what is a serious infraction or what behavior involves sufficient participation in assigned programs, etc. (which is a strange thing for a bill to do, because that makes the bill more indeterminate). But that doesn’t mean the levels are identical to the existing classifications, just that they share certain features and concepts.

      Dick writes:

      “The bill does not define the Levels it uses (a serious drafting error), so I will assume they refer to the security levels DOC uses to classify its inmates. Level I is the lowest security level. The lowest risk offenders, primarily drug offenders and property offenders, are placed in this security category.”

      From reading the bill, it is not at all clear to me that the bill’s Level I is the same as the existing Level I used by DOC, or that only drug offenders and property offenders are covered by the bill’s Level I. The bill doesn’t define its levels by offense, but rather by behavior and participation in assigned programs, etc. The Levels as defined in the bill don’t seem to include things mentioned by Dick in the past as defining existing differences between levels in existing DOC policy, such as nature of the inmate’s offense, escape risks, risk of violence, etc.

      Of course, if the Levels defined in the bill aren’t the same as in existing DOC practice, that only lends more weight to Dick Hall-Sizemore’s concern that the bill “will be costly for DOC to implement, because it will have to make extensive changes to the code underlying the automated system used to calculate the length of one’s sentence left to be served.” Using two different four-level classification schemes for the very same inmate could be confusing and administratively complex and costly.

      • I concede that the bill could indeed be interpreted in the way that you do. In fact, after re-reading it with that frame of reference, it does seem to be drafted with that meaning in mind. (The DOC security system has six security levels. The use of just four levels in the bill confused and bothered me. That should have been a hint that the bill sponsors had something else in mind.)

        But, that interpretation makes it even harder to implement. What constitutes “significant improvement?” What is an “area”? Would one vocational course, such as carpentry, constitute an area? To implement this bill, DOC will need to know the definitions of the terms it is supposed to implement. Strangely, behavior in prison, evidenced by infractions, is not a factor in the levels above Level 1, unless behavior constitutes an “area”. It is one thing to talk about proposals conceptually, using terms such as “area”, but those concepts need to be translated into precise terms when it comes to writing law. Otherwise, one invites a flood of litigation. It would make much more sense to use the DOC classification system. That has been developed over the years and would serve the purpose that the sponsors of the bill are striving for.

        I hope that now that the bill is in Senate Finance, the Senators will slow down, stop acting in the heat of “criminal justice reform”, and look critically at the bill. If they want to do something like this, they need to consult with DOC on the best way of wording so that it can be implemented.

  4. Baconator with extra cheese

    Another reason for me to work harder at planning my exodus from VA. And the more the wife and daughter have their eyes opened by violence, property destruction, and crazy legislative proposals that seem to be smoke screens instead of fixes the easier it is becoming to convince them to leave.
    I had been planning on Texas but the exodus from Cali has me reconsidering another western state.
    If the voting public wants to clear out the prisons good for them. Let them go down with the ship.

  5. Is that because the Dems have taken over?

  6. “Bill Would Release Inmates Guilty of Involuntary Manslaughter”

    Why are they in prison for INVOLUNTARY manslaughter in the first place?
    After all, they obviously didn’t MEAN to kill anyone…

    /s

    • Well, can they even be rehabilitated?

      The death sentence zeros recidivism. I like Bader’s position, lock up a kid who steals a candy bar for the rest of his life, and he will not commit another crime.

  7. I wish this site, or anyone, would get copies of the rap sheets of those who have murdered innocent young children in Richmond over the last several years.

    What might we learn about the precursors of these acts? Are there crimes that might be punished more severely?

    Were these individuals let out early? Under what circumstances?

  8. I have had only three personal relationships with criminals. One is a good friend who committed a robbery in his youth for which he paid his due, and now 50 years later is a community leader.

    The second provided the greatest story ever. Arrested for smuggling drugs, the FBI offered him a deal — no prosecution if he testified against the boat owner and the skipper. He should have gotten it in writing. He testified, they let him go, and 6.5 years later a computer flagged a “speedy trial” limitation, and he was re-arrested.

    At his trial, the FBI agent testified that he was a fugitive outlaw and that the FBI had been tracking him for 6.5 years. His attorney rose, and said, “Your Honor, my client was arrested in the same house listed on his original arrest. He drives a car with a license plate that has his name on it. Just how hard were they looking?” He was facing 20 years. He got 6 months suspended.

    The third was a student of mine – straight A, and yes, he graduated with a 4.0. He was also a convicted criminal, attempted murder for which he served 11 years as a model prisoner.

    I helped get him a job with a defense contractor and when he was denied a clearance, he appealed, and with testimony from me, his boss, and his parole officer and a few dozen other letters, he was granted a Secret Clearance. That was 15 years ago. He completed his parole and victim restitution.

  9. Not all murderers are career criminals. My son is in prison for killing a man who was molesting his little sisters. He was 18 when he went in and we are fighting for these bills so he can be free. He’s not a threat to anyone or anything. He has held a job, been in the honor pod, helped out numerous other inmates, gotten his diploma and took a variety of classes to improve himself.

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