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Parole reform wins rare bipartisan support in Virginia

When the legislature met earlier this year, Republicans were unhappy with the number of inmates being released from state prisons. Democrats felt too few were getting out, and both sides agreed that too much was happening in secret.

At the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Shawn Wineta says the new law – which takes effect in July of 2024 – will open closed doors.

A new law gives prison inmates and victims of crime direct access to the parole board.
Virginia Parole Board
A new law gives prison inmates and victims of crime direct access to the parole board.

“They will deliberate and share their reasons for a denial or a grant of parole, not only with the parole candidate but also with the public, and they have to be individualized reasons. A lot of people who have been familiar with the parole process in the past have been getting these canned reasons –things like “release at this time would diminish the serious nature of the offense,” he explains.

In addition, the law requires the parole board to hear directly from inmates -- in person or through a video link. In the past, parole-eligible prisoners met with staffers who interviewed them and wrote a report for the board.

“So parole board members are really going to have to look the person in the eye and give them a reason for denial," Weneta says. "Judge Dotson, who is the chair of the board, said ‘Hey, that’s what I thought I owed somebody if I sent them to prison was to look them in the eye and give them a reason,’ and he believes the board should do that as well.”

The law makes it easier for victims of crime to participate in the process, tells the parole board what factors it must consider in making its decisions and requires detailed reports on who is staying in, who is getting out and why.

Weneta, who served 16 years behind bars before joining the ACLU, says many other states are more transparent than Virginia when it comes to parole hearings.

“When OJ Simpson was being considered for parole in Nevada, ESPN carried those hearings live, and I remember sitting on my bunk and watching. They deliberated and cast their vote and told Mr. Simpson the reasons for their grant and I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is how Virginia should be doing it.’"

He adds that this new law could be a first step toward restoring parole eligibility to all inmates.

“We really felt that we needed to reform and rebuild the system to a place where everybody had confidence in it and people thought it was fair. I don’t think we wanted to see an expansion of parole through a broken system and through mechanisms that nobody had confidence in.”

And finally, the bill eliminates the exemption from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, allowing the public to see documents pertaining to parole.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief