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Virginia Parole Rate Plummets Despite Thousands of Eligible Parolees

by John E. Dannenberg

Politics in Virginia have trumped reason when it comes to releasing eligible offenders on parole. Notwithstanding examples of successful reintegration into society after such prisoners are released, political pressure has driven the parole board’s grant rate down from 40% to 5.6%. It also drove previous parole board members into the unemployment lines.

In 2001, the board released prisoners Joseph N. Martin and Floyd R. Honesty. Martin, an insurance agent, had been convicted in 1979 for murdering a client and his fiancée in order to collect on a policy. Both Martin and Honesty are doing well now, seven years later. Nonetheless, their release generated significant negative publicity for state officials from the governor down.

Another parolee, James Albert Steele III, was a failure. Just months after he was paroled in 1990, he murdered a preacher he had befriended. The public relations fallout from that crime sparked the election of a new governor, George Allen, and led to the end of parole in Virginia for crimes committed after 1995.

Later, following the release of Martin and Honesty in 2001, then-Governor Mark Warner asked all of the parole board members to resign and cut the board from five full-time members to three, plus two part-time. The new board quickly earned a reputation as a “no parole” board, as the parole approval rate dropped to a miserly 5.6% in 2006. Yet 9,000 of Virginia’s 36,000 prisoners are still eligible for parole under the laws that were in effect when they were sentenced.

Formerly, a prisoner with multiple life terms could be eligible for parole after serving 13 years. “Life” now means life, and whereas non-life sentenced prisoners could once expect to be paroled after doing 1/5 of their term, current law require prisoners to serve 85% of their sentences.

The resulting logjam created by the reduced parole rate, coupled with daily new arrivals in the state’s overburdened prison system, means Virginia will have to construct one new prison a year for the foreseeable future to maintain needed bed space. Each facility is estimated to cost $100 million to build and $25 million a year to operate.

Ominously, between 2002 and 2006 the number of technical parole violators grew by a staggering 41%, which further added to a swelling prison population. This smacks of an attempt by parole authorities to boost the job security of corrections officials by keeping the state’s prison system at full capacity.

Virginia’s parole board increasingly looks just at the commitment offense, not at any rehabilitation achieved in prison. “The board looks at all of the factors, but the nature of the crime is the most significant one,” acknowledged parole board chairwoman Helen F. Fahey.

Evans D. Hopkins, a repeat offender who served 16 years for armed robbery and was paroled in 1997, became an accomplished writer while incarcerated (he is the author of Life After Life). Hopkins said if the board members had only looked at his criminal record, as is their current practice, “then I wouldn’t be contributing to society today. These guys [in prison] are still trying and still working hard, but they are locked into a system where they aren’t even given consideration.… They lose all hope.”

Which, from the standpoint of Virginia’s no-parole board, may be the message they want to convey.

Sources: Richmond Times-Dispatch,

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