New Parole Board chair pledges transparency and second chances
Chadwick Dotson was appointed to chair the parole board five months ago. He had served as a judge on general district and circuit courts in Wise County and had recently begun work as Dean of Students and a professor at the Appalachian School of Law.
“I’m the guy who quit a judgeship with many years left on my term in the middle of a global pandemic. My wife thinks I’ve lost my mind," he jokes, "but I was looking for a new challenge.”
Dotson’s wife is not the only one surprised by his professional decisions. Growing up in southwestern Virginia he listened often to radio broadcasts of the Cincinnati Reds, visited 14 Major League Baseball parks and has been a regular contributor to ESPN’s online baseball coverage for years.
But he also attended UVA as an undergraduate, got a law degree from Georgetown and was appointed to the bench shortly after his 30th birthday. There he took his calls as seriously as a major league umpire. “Every time I sentenced someone I had to look them in the eye. I forced myself to look them in the eye. I thought I owed it to them when I sentenced them.”
So he was dismayed to learn that the parole board never sees the people asking for early release. Instead, members get reports from an examiner who goes into the prisons and talks to eligible inmates.
Dotson says the parole board is too small for its members to do that. He and his vice chair are full-time, but the other three members are part-time employees. Still, he has been making the rounds of prisons – talking to inmates. “I was hearing what some of the offenders were saying about how the new Republican parole board is here. Nobody is going to get parole. That kind of hurt me a little bit," Dotson admits. "I said, ‘You don’t know me!’ And so I owe it to them to go show my face.”
Come September he will ask the legislature to hire more people to sit on the board, so some in-person hearings might be possible, and he will stop sending form letters to prisoners – denying their request for parole because of the serious nature of their crime. “That will be one of my recommendations – that we’re able to give more personalized feedback to inmates when they get a denial letter, so they have a better idea of why we denied and maybe what they can do going forward to improve their chances.”
Already, Dotson insists on a greater degree of transparency. Previous board members decided the fate of applicants independently – never debating their applications for parole but meeting monthly to cast their votes in private. “We’ve tried to open it up. We’re having weekly meetings. actually discussing cases, which is a novel thing.”
Dotson’s boss, Governor Glenn Youngkin, made law and order a campaign issue, but the parole board chief says Youngkin supports early release for inmates who don’t pose a threat to society. “When I took this job, I was given basically two directions by the governor, and one of those was follow the law, and the only other thing he told me was be open to second chances, and that’s the message I’m trying to get out to everyone.”
Everyone including victims. “Sometimes victims – the last thing they remember is the angry 17-year-old that was in a courtroom many years ago. The 42-year-old that I’m looking at for parole is not the same guy as the 17-year-old who was convicted. We’ve not done a service to our victims in keeping that information from them.”
And, finally, he’s pledged to attack a backlog of pardon requests. “There are between 1,500 and 2,000 I think that we inherited, so I have a team of 11 investigators. We worked through a systematic plan to try to clear those out. We decided to start back at the beginning, because in the past some had been kicked to the top because of social media pressure or political pressure, and we’re starting at the beginning and treating each of them as fairly as we can.”
Parole Board Chairman Chad Dotson must submit a report to the governor by September first, making recommendations for reform of the parole board – changes he knows may not be accepted by the governor or state lawmakers. “My recommendations are going to be transformative. I want to change just about everything about how we do things here.”
And, in the mean time, he’s been talking with other states to find-out how they handle parole requests and to explore making Virginia’s system one of the best in the nation.