Will Middle-Aged Killers Get Early Release?

John Reginald Christie, an English serial killer and necrophiliac who killed into his 50s.

by Hans Bader

A Virginia bill, SB 624, would make middle-aged murderers and rapists eligible for “geriatric release.” It would do so even though “geriatric” is precisely about being old. It is defined in the dictionary as “old, elderly,” or “relating to, or appropriate for elderly people.”

Under SB 624, a prison inmate would be eligible for geriatric release if he is 50 years old, or 55 years old, depending on how long he has been in prison. Such inmates are not old, but middle-aged. As the Merriam Webster dictionary notes, “middle-aged people” are “people between the age of about 40 and the age of about 60.” Wikipedia describes middle age as extending to 65 — far above age 50.  I am 50 years old, and have never been treated as old for any purpose.

The bill would let inmates seek release at age 50 if they have served 20 years, or age 55 if they’ve served 15. That’s lower than the age at which famous serial killers were still active. These inmates are younger than serial murderer Albert Fish, who killed starting at age 54, and Dorothea Puente, who killed from age 53 to 59. Many other serial killers continued killing into their 50s, such as Peter Tobin (up to age 60), John Reginald Christie (up to age 53), and Ted Kaczynski (into his 50s). The murder rate is much lower for people in their 60s than in their 50s, but there are people who commit murder even in their 70s.

Inmates would not be eligible for geriatric release under the bill if they committed a “Class 1 felony.” But even most premeditated murders are not Class 1 felonies, which include only a narrow range of killings, such as murders of cops or young children. In Virginia, “First-degree murder is classified as a Class 2 felony,” notes a web site about state laws. So the Class 1 felony exception in the bill doesn’t guarantee that dangerous criminals won’t be released.

Keeping such inmates in prison rather than releasing them can reduce the crime rate. Parolees commonly commit more crimes after being released. Statutory sentence enhancements have been found to reduce crime. Conversely, lenient penalties are less likely to deter crime

This bill would effectively turn many life without parole sentences for  murder into sentences as short as 15 years. It could affect a lot of cases: A commenter says hundreds of murderers in Virginia were imprisoned just between 2001 and 2005 at age 40 or over, and many of them would thus be eligible for release.

For many types of killings, life without parole would effectively end as an option under Virginia law, if this bill passed, even though life without parole is common for murder even in many liberal states. Such short sentences for murder could provoke a real backlash from survivors of murder victims. Even survivors who publicly oppose the death penalty typically want the killer to receive life without parole, for the sake of public safety, and their own security and peace of mind.

The bill will probably be voted on this Friday by the Virginia Senate’s committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services, which is scheduled to hear the bill at 8:30 a.m. on January 17. Contact information for state senators can be found here. You can email them your thoughts about the bill if you like. The membership of the committee can be found here.

Hans Bader is an attorney living in Northern Virginia. This op-ed originally appeared in Liberty Unyielding.