By Sam Isaacs
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – In the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, appeared in front of the parole board and explained why he should be released from prison after serving 40 years of a life sentence for killing a man:
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this old man is all that’s left.”
In the movie, Red gets parole. In real-life Virginia, the system could not be any different: Even old men – prisoners in their 70s and 80s who have served decades behind bars – are routinely denied parole.
“My husband has been in jail for 25 years. He was told he would be eligible for parole 12 years ago, which means for the past 12 years, we have gotten our hopes up and have been let down time and time again. He is in his 70s, and he just wants to come home,” said the wife of 73-year-old prisoner. She asked that her name not be published.
The Virginia General Assembly abolished parole in 1995 under then-Gov. George Allen. So criminal defendants sentenced to prison after 1995 have no opportunity for parole at all.
But more than 3,500 people in Virginia’s prison system committed their crime before 1995, and they are eligible for parole under the old system, according to William W. Muse, chairman of the Virginia Parole Board.
At least, those prisoners are theoretically eligible for parole. In practice, they rarely get it. In 2012, the Parole Board decided 3,156 cases and granted parole to just 116 prisoners, according to Virginia CURE, an advocacy group for criminal justice reforms.
In other words, prisoners up for parole had just a 3.7 percent chance of getting it. In 2011, the odds were even worse – 3.5 percent.
The Parole Board members are appointed by the governor and serve terms of four years. Muse said the board itself does not interview inmates.
“The parole examiners do the interviews in person or by video conference. We look at the examiner’s as well as Department of Corrections’ data on the original offense and how he has acted since he was incarcerated. After that, the decision is basically done by the computer,” Muse said.
An inmate goes up for parole once a year; if denied, he (the vast majority of prisoners are men) gets a list of reasons based on data entered into computers by the Parole Board.
In January, for example, the board denied parole to an 82-year-old man. The reasons: “Serious disregard for property rights” and “Serious nature and circumstances of offense.” (The documents on the Parole Board’s website do not indicate the crime.)
That same month, a 75-year-old man was also denied parole. The board gave four reasons:
- “Considering all of the offender’s records, the Board concludes that the offender should serve more of the sentence prior to release on parole”
- “History of violence – indicates serious risk to the community”
- “Risk to the community”
- “Serious nature and circumstances of offense”
The inmate’s wife said the reasons for denial are overly vague and serve no constructive purposes.
“The inmates get trapped with ‘Serious nature of the offense’ quite often, which essentially means in the eyes of the Parole Board, you haven’t served enough time. There is no clear knowledge of what these inmates need to do to have their parole granted. They need a definite goal,” she said.
She also said the Parole Board’s five-member staff may not be large enough to process the near 4,000 inmates eligible for parole.
“With only two full-time members, it is impossible for the board to personally meet with every prisoner. It would be nice if they could meet with the prisoners themselves so they could at least know who they are talking to rather than base their decisions off of words on a computer screen,” the woman said.
Capital News Service examined the Parole Board’s decisions for December and January. During those two months, the board denied parole in 536 of 547 cases – 98 percent. Parole was denied to every prisoner over age 51, including 21 prisoners over 70.
Muse said the high number of elderly denials in that stretch was a coincidence.
During this year’s legislative session, Delegate Mark Sickles, D-Alexandria, proposed a bill requiring the Parole Board to give inmates “specific reasons” why they have been denied granted parole. The General Assembly unanimously passed House Bill 2103, and Gov. Bob McDonnell signed it into law.
“It is an unjust situation. It is hard to move any legislation on this topic in Virginia, but small steps are still celebrated. This bill was a no-brainer,” Sickles said. “How are these prisoners supposed to know what to do and what they are doing wrong with no clear insight at all?”
In Virginia, being tough on criminals is a popular, easy stance for politicians to take, Sickles noted. But in reality, there are flaws in the way the criminal justice system processes criminals.
“In politics, if it takes time to explain an issue, you are losing. No one takes the time to learn the facts. Saying you are tough on crime may go over well on the campaign trail, but in reality, crime isn’t lower now than in 1995 before parole was abolished. In many cases, new prisoners are committing the same crimes as old prisoners, and are getting out of jail faster than the pre-1995 inmates,” Sickles said.
Virginia CURE, a non-profit group, supports inmates and families in the criminal justice and prison system. Carla Peterson, the organization’s director, said Sickles’ bill is a step, albeit a small one, in the right direction.
“A previous bill required the parole board to put grant rates on the Internet. Once that happened, we started to see the same three or four reasons,” Peterson said.
“What Delegate Sickles’ bill will hopefully do is provide a more individualized look into why an inmate has not been granted parole. Bills related to parole have to be small in scale, because there is no way a powerful bill would ever pass in Virginia.”
Stephen Northup, the executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and a retired lawyer, dedicated a portion of his career to parole reform
“I have represented a number of prisoners before the Parole Board with some success. At one point, I was asked to work on the problem with parole in Virginia. We filed a class action lawsuit in February of 2010 in an attempt to open up the process. Unfortunately, the case was thrown out by the District Court in a 2-1 decision,” Northup said.
He said the high denial rate for parole in Virginia has an effect on more than just the inmates and their families.
“Many model prisoners are getting turned down for ‘Nature of the crime.’ The door has been slammed on ‘old law’ prisoners. Many of them have good records but are made to rot in prison at the taxpayer’s expense. It isn’t cheap to keep a 70-year-old in jail. It has gotten to the point where the governor is the only person that can change this,” he said.
HB 2103 wasn’t the only criminal justice reform bill before the General Assembly this year.
McDonnell called on legislators to pass a law to automatically restore the civil rights of nonviolent felons who have served their prison sentences. Democrats and some prominent Republicans, including Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, supported the idea; however, House Republicans killed it.
Sickles, Northup and Peterson all agreed that HB 2103 is a small but important step toward fixing the parole problems. However, Muse said he does not think the bill will have any effect.
“Letting prisoners know the reasons for their denial has been part of our policy for years. Some might argue the reasons aren’t specific enough, but our board has been pretty good about giving multiple reasons and a better feel for what our thinking is,” Muse said.
Sickles’ bill will take effect July 1. The wife of the 73-year-old inmate said she is hopeful that the bill will enable her husband to figure out exactly what he needs to do to come home.
“I applaud Gov. McDonnell for all he has done for felons. He has done a lot for re-entry, but mostly for ‘new law’ inmates. I recently came across the commonwealth’s attorney who prosecuted my husband, and he was astonished when I told him he was still in jail,” she said.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The website for the Virginia Parole Board is www.vadoc.state.va.us/vpb/. At the bottom of the page is a link to the board’s monthly decisions.
The website for Virginia CURE is http://vacure.org/
Data and a chart about the Parole Board’s decisions are at http://tinyurl.com/va-parole-decisions