This year, Congress approved a series of reforms to the criminal justice system – changes that should reduce the number of people in federal prisons.
In Virginia’s General Assembly, several proposed reforms failed, but Democrats say that could change if they get control of the legislature in November.
At 17, Joey Sikes committed a murder, but after 23 years behind bars, his father thinks he deserves a second chance.
"He was under a lot of stress. His mother had just passed away," he explains. "The lawyer wanted a plea agreement of 48 years. We were told by the lawyer he would be out in 12, and that has not come true."
So Joe Sikes Sr. and his sister came to a public forum hosted by the state’s secretary of public safety – Brian Moran – to plead for clemency in Joey’s case.
“He has graduated from high school. He has taken so many different educational things. He is now cutting hair," Sarah Sikes says. " Even the correctional officers say, ‘ You do not belong here!’”
Virginia does not offer parole to people who committed crimes after 1994, leaving them and their families to beg for pardons from the governor. Brenda Hansford spoke publicly for her son Derek.
“I am 71 years old, and I don’t know how long it will be before you let my sound out, but I need my sound to be home to assist with his mother!" she told officials. " He should be entitled to have a second chance. We all make mistakes. Some of us get caught. Some of us never have, but not all of us need to stay in prison for the rest of our lives.”
In response, the state’s public safety director, Brian Moran, said Virginia would celebrate Second Chance Month in May, but parole board chair Adrianne Bennett was frank. The law requires “extraordinary circumstances” for an inmate to be freed by the governor, and parole was granted last year to just 12% of the 2,100 who are eligible. Amanda Anthony’s nephew, Reginald Evans, was one those rejected for early release.
“In 1994 he was convicted of a murder charge. He was 15. He got life and 28 years. So now he has graduated different programs. He’s helping youth in there. He’s counseling men. He’s been up for parole I think about ten times and denied each time,” Anthony says.
But the fact that Bennett and Moran are hosting a series of public meetings may signal a political shift – a recognition that with 37,000 state prisoners behind bars and a raging opioid epidemic in Virginia, the public tide has turned away from a “tough on crime” philosophy to something more compassionate. Peggy Williams described herself as an advocate for prison reform
“Yesterday I went to see my son. I stood in line for 30 minutes. All of us are doing that," she told the crowd. "When you’re out there, ask those other parents, wives, husbands to please, please vote in November. This is our best chance to change the general assembly so that we can really bring in some prison reform. Those lines are just begging to be worked. They’ll vote for one issue – parole!”
Late last year the ACLU of Virginia released results from a survey of registered voters. Three quarters said they favored criminal justice reform, 62% said too many people were going to prison, costing taxpayers too much money, and 75% said it was time to reinstate parole for non-violent offenders.