Are you concerned that Virginia has opened its prisons and hustled inmates out over fears of COVID-19?
Brace yourself. The news just got worse.
Not only are criminals being rushed out of prison, they’re being released without re-entry preparations. The cell doors open and the convicts are suddenly on their own.
What could possibly go wrong?
It wasn’t like this even a few months ago. Back in February the state boasted in a press release that Virginia’s recidivism rate was the lowest in the nation at 23.1%. One of the reasons offered for that impressive statistic was the Department of Corrections’ terrific re-entry program that prepared inmates to return to their communities with skills and support.
In the past weeks, however, under orders from Richmond, the DOC has been freeing prisoners at a manic pace with no time to prepare them for life on the outside.
According to The Virginia Mercury, about 230 inmates have qualified for early release and at least 130 are out. The total number of prisoners eligible for a get-out-of-jail card is close to 2,000.
Yet prosecutors only learned about the re-entry situation this week after seeing a presentation made for them by state corrections officials.
“I was quite disturbed,” Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Bethany Harrison told me yesterday. “The programs are suspended. They’re just gone.”
Harrison was so stunned by what she saw that she emailed the president of the state commonwealth’s attorneys’ association, urging him and others to watch the presentation when it aired again later in the week.
There is no parole re-entry program, she wrote. Early release people cannot be sent to programs or supervised in an intensive manner because of the state of emergency. There is no job readiness. There is no cognitive behavior treatment. There is no community transition. …The offenders are handed a packet of papers and given the option to peruse them at their leisure or not all all.
So long as there is a state of emergency, there will be an early release plan. I guess we will keep the turnstiles going until there is a vaccine.
This is outrageous. Unfair to society and unfair to the inmates.
When it comes to the violent criminals that the parole board is freeing — they’re separate from the non-violent felons the DOC is letting out on early release — the situation doesn’t seem any better.
I emailed Parole Board Chair Tonya Chapman yesterday to ask about re-entry preparations for prisoners who committed heinous crimes and are being paroled after decades in prison. Her response was vague.
Some of the incarcerated individuals received re-entry programming prior to the pandemic and others have had the following ‘special condition’ applied since taking my position as Chair on April 16, 2020:
“You must participate in and complete any evidence-based program(s) that you are referred to based upon assessment and at the instruction of your parole officer. Such programs may include group sessions led by a facilitator or administered by the parole office.”
“Some” received re-entry programming. What about the others? Plus, many of the most vile criminals were paroled in March and early April, before Chapman took over as chair.
Some of these newly-paroled felons have been behind bars since Jimmy Carter was president. Their parents are probably dead, they’ve lost touch with their extended families and have no friends in the community. These inmates have never used a cell phone, a debit card, a microwave or a modern TV. They may have forgotten how to drive a car. How will they adjust?
When I contacted Sen. Mark Obenshain, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to get his take on the death of the inmate re-entry programs, this was his response:
They are in a hurry. What do you expect? Sadly, the Administration has seemingly used the COVID crisis as a cover for the release of inmates, some of whom were convicted of the most horrendous crimes imaginable. The infrastructure for a safe transition and re-entry is not in place and won’t be until after the crisis has abated.
But if they waited, the public would never abide what they are doing. These are not the “nonviolent felons” in the last year of their sentences that the Administration said they would be releasing. Just like the COVID testing fiasco uncovered by The Atlantic, the public is figuring out what they are up to with this parole bait-and-switch and they are angry.
If it wasn’t clear at the beginning of this health crisis, it’s clear now that the Northam administration is using the virus as an excuse for a quick and sloppy release of prisoners.
State officials seem to believe that the public is distracted and won’t notice.
They will when crime and recidivism rates soar. But by then it will be too late.
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