A new law approved in April 2020 was meant to right that wrong, finally passing after years of attempts from Democratic lawmakers in the state. The state’s Parole Board has identified 549 prisoners — about 2% of Virginia’s total prison population — who are eligible for parole consideration under the so-called “Fishback” law, according to a November 28, 2020 story in The Virginian-Pilot.
The moniker comes from the 2000 state Supreme Court case of Richard David Fishback, which ruled that jurors must be informed that parole no longer exists in Virginia, a circumstance that still lives on today. At that time, the Court said it “simply defies reason” to not inform juries of parole’s abolishment.
Governor Ralph Northam, who backed the new legislation, supported a slate of criminal justice reform bills in the 2020 Assembly’s regular and special sessions. “This is about simple justice and fairness,” he said. “When you’ve paid your debt, we should welcome you back, encourage you to participate in civil society, and restore your right to vote.”
Parole hearings for Fishback prisoners have now started, but advocates and family members say the process has been much too slow. Only about 150 of the 549 people the Board and the Department of Corrections identified as eligible had received interviews, the newspaper reported. According to the legislation, all initial parole interviews for Fishback inmates must be scheduled by July 2021.
Parole Board Chair Tonya Chapman says: “there are others who may have been Fishback eligible but were approved for parole under geriatric or discretionary parole.”
Kari Anderson, a Virginia criminal justice advocate, has been working to help the Parole Board find prisoners who qualify. “I had kind of hoped for … a little more progression,” said Anderson. Some prisoners still haven’t been notified they’re eligible, she said, and families are frustrated. “I’m still getting emails saying, ‘I haven’t heard anything yet,’“ she said.
Tywon Briscoe is one of those eligible Fishback inmates waiting for the Parole Board to contact him. He’s 43 years old and has served about 25 years of his 35-year sentence. A jury sentenced him to that term for malicious wounding when he was just 18 years old, in the mid-1990s.
“They were of the assumption that Tywon would have been eligible for parole,” said Briscoe’s fiancé, Jurmeine Samuels.
In fact, court records show that the jury sent a note to the judge asking about parole eligibility for a 20-year sentence. The judge said they should impose a punishment based on the evidence and not concern themselves with what happened afterward.
“It’s a wrong that they need to correct,” said Samuels.
As of late last year, only eight Fishback prisoners had been granted parole in Virginia.
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