Virginia’s Sloppy Prisoner Release Plan

by Kerry Dougherty

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.

This column was published originally at www.kerrydougherty.com.

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14 responses to “Virginia’s Sloppy Prisoner Release Plan

  1. Great work, Kerry. Keep on the heat. This issue isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves.

    I cannot escape the feeling that those who cry the loudest for letting prisoners free are at the least risk of suffering blowback. The felons won’t be coming to their neighborhoods. If things go wrong and the early-release criminals begin victimizing people, it won’t the family and friends of the do-gooders who suffer.

    This move is, of course, part of a larger movement to reduce the prison population by whatever means, based on the conviction that the American justice system is fundamentally racist. I don’t know how it can be done, but it surely needs to be done: Someone needs to track how many of these early-release felons commit crimes once they are freed — and who their victims are. Who knows, why might discover the do-gooders are right and the risks to society are extremely low. On the other hand, we might find the opposite — and that the victims are primarily poor and/or ethnic minorities. Either way, we should know.

    • I agree, Jim. I read her inciteful, barbed column with pleasure for the years I lived in Tidewater. OABTW, I did mean “Tidewater”, not Hampton Roads.

      I notice N_N has even eased up on Kerry.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I am aware of non profit groups in Virginia who assist with released prisoners and their reintegration with society. They seem to offer counseling, temporary housing, job training, etc. Are these resources being utilized at all?

  3. I’m not impressed with the way it seems to work to be honest.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Here is a non profit that has made some strides with released prisoners and their reentry into society. My friend and retired deputy Eric Paul started this. It would be wise for prison leaders to activate these resources.
    https://www.transitionsolutionsenterprises.org/

  5. I think the Corrections folks as well as the Parole folks have dummied up by NOT having a concise approach – or if they do – it’s not coming across that way.

    Unfortunately in today’s hyper-partisan environment – you have to justify what you are doing are else you actually end up empowering the critics and endangering your own program.

    Ducks in a row or else pay the price.

  6. Is automatic restoration of voting rights part of this early release activity?

    • Carol asks: “Is automatic restoration of voting rights part of this early release activity?”

      Carol – Stop asking sensitive questions that violate the rights of privacy of other fellow Virginians.

    • The state Supreme Court has ruled that there cannot be automoatic restoration of voting rights. That is what McAuliffe tried. Restoration has to be done upon consideration of each case individually.

      • Just like their release.

      • And likely with same result, I suspect without knowing, though I assume its matter of record, given that every vote counts, unless Republican. Indeed, have any Republicans been freed to date, under current administration?

      • Dick, of course, you’re correct. So McAuliffe individually signed off on 173,000, and Northam said in press releases from January 13, 2019 to October 9, 2019, he restored 22,205. “The discrepancy in the numbers, according to Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson, who has worked in both the Northam and McAuliffe administrations, is because McAuliffe cleared the backlog of restorations, while Northam has mostly been keeping up with them as people leave custody.”
        Secretary of the Commonwealth website, https://www.restore.virginia.gov/ says:
        * To be eligible for restoration of civil rights, an individual must have a felony conviction and be free from any term of incarceration and/or supervision resulting from felony conviction(s).
        * The Secretary of the Commonwealth gives priority consideration to individuals who request restoration of their civil rights. An individual seeking restoration of their civil rights may contact the Secretary of the Commonwealth using the button below or by calling (804) 692-0104.
        * The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office has identified individuals who may meet the Governor’s standards for restoration of rights and those individuals will be considered for possible restoration in the order of when they were released from supervision.

        So at an average 845 to 1,000 restorations a month since Northam was sworn in, that individual consideration seems pretty automatic to me.

        • Thanks Carol:

          My translation: This Virginia ruling regime in power today is utterly shameless, turning all good political practice onto its head, so as to amass into concrete their political control.

        • Automatic? Well, no more automatic than a rejection of CO status by the Draft Board.

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