Changes in Richmond May Mean Freedom for Some Prisoners

Jan 11, 2017

Credit Dave Nakayama / Creative Commons

In 1995, Virginia abolished parole -- a change that led to crowding of state prisons and longer stays behind bars.  Now, small cracks have developed in the legal wall that keeps about 30,000 people locked up.  Sandy Hausman reports on changes that could free some inmates.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that kids sentenced to life must be given a meaningful chance of release, but for those who committed crimes after 1994 in Virginia, the only option is geriatric parole – occasionally given to elderly people who are suffering terminal illness. The state’s supreme court said that was good enough, but Senator David Marsden and a federal appeals court disagreed.

“Arenda Wright Allen in the Eastern District said, “No, geriatric parole in its face is absurd as a meaningful remedy.  That’s not what the Supreme Court meant.”

So Marsden has introduced Senate Bill #1152.  It would require that anyone who’s served 20 years for a crime committed as a juvenile be considered for parole. 

“Especially with kids, we need to be out of the lesson teaching business.  You don’t teach people lessons by locking them up.  You have kids who are already suffering any number of home problems and identity issues, and poverty – they don’t improve because somebody’s teaching them a lesson.  They need help.”

And the odds of being paroled improved last week, when Governor Terry McAuliffe made good on a threat to start replacing parole board members who were releasing very few of the 2765 inmates who committed their crimes before parole was abolished.  The board’s chair, Karen Brown, was a former prosecutor who had little sympathy for convicted criminals.  She’s now been replaced by Adrianne Bennett, who practiced poverty law before getting a seat on the parole board. McAuliffe chose Jean Cunningham to replace Bennett as a board member.  She’s a former state representative from Richmond who holds a law degree from Howard University.