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.

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16 responses to “Will Middle-Aged Killers Get Early Release?

  1. As I said in response to an earlier post by this author on this same subject, the bill would not guarantee conditional release to any inmate. It would only make inmates who meet the criteria eligible for consideration by the Parole Board. For the many years that conditional release has been an option, the Parole Board has released very few inmates. Serious violent offenders will not be granted conditional release by the Parole Board.

    In addition, anyone incarcerated for an offense committed before January 1, 1995, is eligible for regular parole under current law. Therefore, most of the inmates who would be newly eligible for conditional release under the proposed legislation are already eligible for parole, which the Parole Board has not granted. If the Parole Board has not released these inmates on regular parole, it certainly would not release them on conditional release.

    • Agreed. Parole remains discretionary. And to be eligible at 50, for less than a Class 1 felony, you must have served 20 years of your sentence. So next summer it could be people who were incarcerated in 2000. The issue really is parole vs. no parole. The other part of the bill interests me because it is messing with the three-strikes provision.

      Criminal law not my area. I’ve spent decades avoiding the Courts committees when I could. But it costs a fortune to keep these folks locked up until near death, and then seems cruel to me to kick them out to fend for themselves. At 50 or 55 they still have a chance for a new life. For every multiple murderer there are probably several inmates who killed only once. When Bader is done scaring people with visions of ax murderers roaming free, will he turn to the exploding corrections budget next? I was there for three strikes, I was there for no parole, and perhaps we are better off – but crime certainly didn’t go away.

      • What also needs to be pointed out that murderers probably constitute a distinct minority of the categories of inmates that would be eligible. Some drug offenses, for example, can carry sentences of 20 years or more.

        Just of curiosity, I looked at the Parole Board’s recent decisions (they are on line). I had to go back five months before I found a conditional release case that was granted release. Each month’s report has hundreds of cases and there were a significant number of conditional release requests considered each month. The Board does not provide much detail on the reasons for denying parole or conditional release, but typically the comments for denying conditional release were “extensive criminal record” and “serious nature of the crime”.

        • Is there a chance that the Parole Board is being stingy with conditional releases only until this bill passes, for strategic reasons? If legislatures think conditional release won’t be abused, they will be more likely to expand the Board’s power to issue conditional releases. Didn’t the Parole Board’s composition recently change to include a former prison inmate? Which might suggest more abundant grants of conditional releases in the future, after this bill is enacted. Maybe more abundant than the public wants, with the goal of curbing correctional spending.

      • The biggest problem with the bill may be that it effectively repeals the three-strikes law. As you put it, “it is messing with the three-strikes provision.” Unfortunately, if they are young enough to have a chance for a new life, they are also young enough to rob, rape, or kill people again.

        • Unless Virginia is very different from most states, I would expect this provision to affect violent criminals much more than inmates in for drug offenses. Lots of people are arrested for drugs, but their sentences tend to be much shorter than sentences for violent crime. Nothing like 20 years. Less than a sixth of state prison populations are drug offenders, and those offenders are overwhelmingly in for drug dealing, etc., not drug use. In most states, a drug dealer would not tend to draw a 20 year sentence. But maybe Virginia is the exception.

  2. I think we should retain the parole boards power to determine each case on a case by case basis with the primary goal to NOT release violent offenders – people that committed premeditated murder and/or have a pattern of violence – those folks should not be out no matter the age.

    But despite reading about the difference classes of murders, I’m still not entirely clear on what prisoners are targeted by this bill – and which are not. I’m pretty sure those in prison for Capital Murder are not candidates for release even on a geriatric basis and so we really don’t know the numbers of murderers who will never be released versus the numbers who MIGHT qualify under the proposed geriatric rules.

    We should be informed if we are going to hold a view.

    • Well, that takes all the fun out of it.

    • The FIS would normally have that information. However, DPB and the agencies upon which they rely for data are swamped with bills to consider. It always takes DPB awhile to catch up and, meanwhile, the committees need to take up bills. A representative of the Parole Board, probably the chairman, will likely be at the committee meeting and she should be prepared to provide that kind of data, if asked.

      • Bader always reads and links to Richmond Sunlight. I’m not sure that site even provides access to the impact statements. I used it for a bill where I know the FIS is posted, but Richmond Sunlight provided it not.

  3. I believe this is an example of the type of murder that might be the focus of this bill:

    ” The former chairman of the King George School Board has been charged with felony murder in connection with the fatal hit-and-run death of a county man in October, authorities announced Thursday.

    John Cecil Davis, 61, is also charged with felony hit-and-run resulting in death, King George Sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Kecia Wharton said.

    The charges stem from the Oct. 25 death of 44-year-old Jose Mendez Mendez of King George. According to police, Mendez was walking westbound on the shoulder of Dahlgren Road near Hill Drive that night when he was struck by a vehicle in front of the Williams Creek Office Park.

    The driver left the scene and the incident wasn’t discovered until 7:20 the next morning, when a passerby spotted a body on the side of the road and called 911. Mendez was already dead when emergency workers arrived.

    Felony murder is a legal term for an accidental death that occurs in concert with another felony offense. It carries a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison.”

    so perhaps Dick can answer this question.

    This guy is already 61. If he were to be sentence to 20-40 years (or whatever) for his crime – would he essentially be immediately eligible to be released on geriatric grounds?

  4. There are two parts to the eligibility criteria–age and time served. In your example, if the man were 61 when convicted, he would be eligible under current law and the proposed legislation for consideration for conditional release at age 66. He would be 65 or older and would have served 5 years of his sentence. Under the proposed bill, inmates 50 or 55 years old would need to have served 15 or 20 years of their sentence.

  5. The Senate committee has just voted to report this bill on a 9-5, party-line vote. The representative of the Parole Board told the committee that the Board has a history of granting only 3 percent of conditional release cases considered. She also reported that the recidivism rate among parolees is less than 1 percent.

    By the way, this was an “administration” bill, meaning that it was put in at the request of the Governor. I understand why the administration justifies the bill on the grounds of the high medical costs incurred by older inmates and the resultant savings to DOC when someone is granted conditional release. However, I don’t agree with that argument. The medical costs for the state likely do not go away when someone is granted conditional release. The offender will likely still be on Medicaid. It is true that there will some savings because Medicaid will cover outpatient costs for a released inmate, but not those of one incarcerated. However, the big costs are inpatient costs and Medicaid covers those whether an offender is in prison or not. The major reasons for conditional release are related to compassion, whether the offender is no longer a danger to society, and the offender’s record while in prison. But, those arguments probably don’t have the same political weight as ones related to saving money.

    I often wish that I could somehow communicate to committee members questions they should be asking. An obvious one today would have been: How many additional offenders would be eligible for consideration for conditional release under the provisions of this bill? What categories (murders, sex crimes, drug, etc.) do they fall in? It was not until the end of the discussion and almost as an afterthought that Senator Hanger brought those questions up and the chairman was ready to vote at that point.

  6. re: ” What categories (murders, sex crimes, drug, etc.) do they fall in? ”

    I’m shocked. I’d have to know that info before being able
    to form on opinion.

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