Commission on Parole Review: Alternative Sentencing Options

Oct 25, 2015

The Virginia Department of Corrections has more than 30,000 people locked up in state prisons, local and regional jails, each costing taxpayers an average of more than $32,000 a year. 

Those who committed crimes after 1994 are not eligible for parole, but Governor Terry McAuliffe has appointed a commission to study that situation and make recommendations.

Twenty years ago, newly elected Republican governor George Allen made good on a campaign promise – appointing a commission to consider getting rid of parole.  The executive director of that group, Eric Finkbeiner, says people who were convicted at that time rarely served a full sentence.

“For example, in a case of first degree murder, the average sentence was 35 years, but the offenders were actually serving less than a third of that. “

Sentences varied from judge to judge.

“You were seeing in some cases maybe in an urban area someone convicted of an armed robbery might get ten years.  For that same type of offense in a rural area were getting 30-35 years.”

And once released, he says, former convicts often committed new crimes.

“Almost 80% were recidivist criminals”

So the commission recommended, and the legislature approved, a policy called Truth in Sentencing requiring criminals to serve at least 85% of their time.  The panel also proposed that non-violent offenders be diverted to community-based programs like drug rehab, but too few of those programs materialized.  Ken Stolle is the Sheriff in Virginia Beach.

“That’s something I think the commission really needs to take a look at, because we could probably move more non-violent prisoners out of prison if we had alternative sentencing options that we don’t have.”

Under Governor Allen, the state also approved mandatory minimum sentences for 82 crimes and classified people who sold large amounts of drugs or burglarized occupied homes as violent criminals, subject to stronger penalties. Katherine Wilson’s husband was one of those – a first-time offender convicted of possession with intent to sell cocaine.  When McAuliffe’s commission met to consider reinstating parole, Wilson sat through four hours of talk for the two-minutes offered to each member of the public wanting to comment.

“We spoke about a lot of numbers today, and I just don’t want my husband to get lost in the numbers.” 

After his conviction her husband remained free for nearly four years while his case was appealed.  During that time, she says, he changed.

“We had children.  We bought a house. He put himself back in school, he went on to earn a degree, became a welder, provided for his family.”

But when his last appeal failed, he was off to prison for ten years, with no chance for parole.  Former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy thinks it might be time to look again at who we classify as violent.

“Somebody that sold five grams of crack could get a sentence as lengthy as someone who committed an aggravated assault with a weapon, based on mandatory minimum sentences, based on how they were classified under the enhanced penalties that were part of this reform.” 

At Virginia Commonwealth University, Professor Robyn McDougle disagrees.  An expert on crime and punishment, she says there’s good reason to treat drug dealers as violent criminals.

“We all know that the drug selling world is a violent interaction.  People are carrying weapons and they’re shooting and killing each other, and innocent victims are getting shot too.”

And she says guys who break into occupied homes are also violent.

“Someone who breaks into a house or apartment at 11 o’clock at night on a Tuesday  isn’t looking to steal your TV, because if they were looking to do that, they would break into your house or apartment when you weren’t home. Breaking into an occupied dwelling, in many cases, has more to do with a potential violent attack on an individual.”

She says tougher penalties and no parole have given Virginia the third lowest rate of violent crime in the nation and the second lowest rate of recidivism. But at the Sentencing Project in Washington, executive director Marc Mauer says there are many reasons why Virginia’s rate of crime might have dropped.

“Crime rates were declining in Virginia before the state abolished parole.  They’ve been declining since then, but so have the crime rates around the country both in states that abolished parole and states that didn’t abolish parole.  Crime rates are in part a function of the drug trade, related violence, in part a function of policing strategies , rehabilitation services in prison or back in the community, economic opportunity, a whole range of factors contribute to whether crime is going up or down.”

Virginia’s parole board can still grant early release to people convicted before 1995, but in reality only three percent of the prison population gets parole.  Mauer thinks society might actually be safer if they did.

“You know if we don’t have parole and people are just serving time until their maximum date, then they get out of prison, they get on a bus and somebody gives them a check for $25 and says good luck.   If we parole people, they’ve got a parole officer who should be helping them readjust to the community.  They are frequently tested for drug use.  There are restrictions on their movements and who they can associated with.  They’re required to seek employment or schooling.”

It’s not clear what the panel will recommend, but when the governor appointed 27 Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers and lawyers, academics and community leaders, he laid out his concerns.  The state is now spending $1.1 billion a year to lock people up.  About 9,000 of them — 24% of the prison population -- have no record of violence.  Many, he suspects, could benefit more from mental health or substance abuse services, and he predicted that in December, when their report is due, the commission would offer alternative sentencing options for nonviolent offenders.