Virginia Inmates: Parole-Eligible in Name Only?
Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but thousands of inmates remain incarcerated who are eligible for parole under the old rules. In reality, inmates claim, the Virginia parole board summarily denies parole to everyone who comes before it. In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by the Legal Aid Justice Center, inmates are seeking a court order that the parole board must conduct a “careful and thorough consideration” of parole eligibility in every case. The AP reports:
“By any reasonable measure, you would look at these people and you would say, ‘What are they still doing in prison?’ and yet year after year after year they get a letter from the parole board saying parole has been denied,” said Steve Northup, a Richmond attorney who is working with the Legal Aid Justice Center on the suit.
Nearly half of the board’s denials in 2006 and 2007 were boiled down to six words: “nature and circumstances of the crime.”
The nature of the crime is only one of several considerations outlined in the law for the board to consider. Others include the inmate’s prior record, prison conduct, whether the inmate has been rehabilitated and whether release would be an acceptable risk.
“This is a false hope that’s being held out to them by Virginia law, because they can’t change the crime, there’s nothing they can ever do to change the crime, and many of them have stopped getting their hopes up,” Northup said.
The law requires parole be granted to those deemed suitable following a “thorough investigation … into the prisoner’s history, physical and mental condition and character and his conduct, employment and attitude while in prison.”
Yet the attorneys said the parole board no longer personally interviews inmates and has abandoned the use of risk assessment guidelines. The board no longer meets regularly, but votes by computer based on review of an electronic file.
By the end of the year, the lawyers said, nearly a quarter of parole-eligible inmates will already have served longer than they would under the sentencing guidelines that apply to crimes committed after parole was abolished.
They estimate Virginia is spending more than $150 million each year to house parole-eligible inmates, which burdens taxpayers “who must bear the cost of warehousing thousands of men and women who by any reasonable measure have rehabilitated themselves and no longer belong in prison,” said William Richardson, an Arlington attorney who is helping with the case.
The Roanoke Times has more coverage of the lawsuit here.