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State lawmakers consider "second look" bill for prisoners who are reformed

Tim Wright is 37 – a former marine convicted of killing a man in 2008. He spends his days at the Green Rock Correctional Center trying to prove his innocence and helping other men who he says would pose no risk to the public if released.

“I’m in a medical pod with two walkers, a half a dozen canes and 12 or 13 wheelchairs.”

One of those in his pod is 67-year-old Clarence Wright – no relation to Tim – who’s serving a life sentence for a rape committed when he was 24. He believed the sex was consensual, but he had a criminal record from a very early age.

‘I’ve been messed up since I was a juvenile – like nine years old.”

He was sent to three different prisons for kids, but when he got out he would steal and be caught again.

“I just wouldn’t listen. It wasn’t anybody’s fault but my own. If I had used my brain and listened, I’d have been alright.”

He got his high school diploma behind bars, learned trades and took classes, but that was not enough to win release. The parole board has repeatedly told him the seriousness of his crime requires him to serve more than the 41 years he’s been in prison. Nor were they swayed by his many medical problems.

“I’ve had two heart attacks. Then I had a stroke. Then I had hep-C, and then I had back surgery, and I had neck surgery," he says. "I have bone spurs on my spine, and they’re squeezing my spine so I can’t walk. As I speak to you now, my hands are numb. I can’t use my left arm. I really can’t write. I can’t hold a sandwich in my hand. I’m messed up.”

Sixty-five-year-old Carson Wolfe is also confined to a wheelchair at Green Rock. He went to prison after killing his x-wife and two members of her family. He was 21 at the time, still bitter over his divorce and says he just snapped.

“I saw her with this guy she used to wave at all the time," he recalls. "I saw them driving through town, and I think that’s what kicked everything off.”

Wolfe claims he’s been a model prisoner and is now battling colon cancer. Tim Wright can see why his victims might argue for keeping him locked up, but he argues people who commit a single crime of passion are unlikely to do so again, and holding them in prison will not bring murder victims back.

“The question is whether or not we believe in second chances, mercy, forgiveness, or do we not," he explains. "There are some people who seek revenge, and there are some people who seek justice.”

And based on their track record, he thinks Virginia’s parole board must be intent on revenge. In December, the board considered nearly 300 cases – roughly half of them involving elderly prisoners who had served at least 30 years. Just one was freed. At the ACLU of Virginia, director Mary Bauer says reformed convicts need another way to win their freedom.

“We’ve got people who have gotten an education, really turned their life around, and for many of them there’s just no mechanism for them to prove to someone that they have been rehabilitated and deserve to return to their family and the community.”

So her group and many others have called on state lawmakers to support a Second Look bill that would allow inmates to go back to court to show what they have done in prison and to ask for a revised sentence. Bauer thinks the measure should get support from Democrats, Republicans and the Governor.

“It’s the right thing to do. It saves money, which this governor has said he’s concerned about. This is a sensible, what should be uncontroversial step.”

She and others are in the capitol today – lobbying the legislature to pass House Bill 834 and Senate Bill 427 sponsored by Delegate Rae Cousins and Senator Creigh Deeds . Noting there are so many new lawmakers in office this year, she says constituents should let their elected representatives know how they feel about second chances.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief