Virginia’s Department of Corrections spends over a billion dollars a year to operate 41 prisons where it holds about 30,000 inmates. Another 7,000 are kept in regional jails. 13,000 of them are freed annually after serving their sentence, but nearly one in four will be back after committing new crimes.
44-year-old Trevor Jackson was convicted of capital murder. He was part of a drug ring, making good money for an 18-year-old, when a deal went wrong, and a customer died. Jackson was charged with the crime.
“Actually, I hadn’t killed anybody, but I was selling drugs. I went in a young kid. An officer taught me how to shave. I hadn’t grown facial hair yet," he recalls.
Jackson claims he had an alibi – something his public defender ignored – and while he knew who had actually committed the crime, he refused to tell police.
"Snitching, as defined in urban America, would be you and I break the law. You get away. I get caught, and I give you up," he explains. " I just was just a kid. If I am honest, I don’t think anybody thought that they would do what they did to me."
What they did was to give him a life sentence, but Jackson is not sorry to have done time.
“I would have gone to prison anyway or died," he reasons. "Prison is where God got my attention, so I didn’t come out bitter. My plea wasn’t even that I was innocent, because I was guilty of something.”
His plea was for a second chance, arguing he had spent his time in prison preparing to be a productive member of society.
“I had taken every program in the Department of Corrections. I began to teach many of them. I was the chairman of the Offender Advisory Committee. You know we met with the warden and staff. I was also the senior editor of the Buckingham Vision at this time.”
He applied for parole, and was released in January of 2018, spending the next year caring for his father, who recently died of Alzheimer’s disease. He got his first driver’s license, became a preacher, plans to get married and counsels young men to reject violence and keep cool.
“You don’t have to respond to everything that’s said on social media as if it challenges you manhood or your core existence,” he tells them.
The state has also started freeing people who were not deemed eligible by previous parole boards. In 1982 the legislature passed a bill called the three-strikes law. The idea was to stop someone who committed a murder, rape or robbery – was paroled, only to commit another serious crime, get locked up and released again. But what if someone committed a series of robberies before ever getting caught? That’s what Keith Fleming and some of his buddies did when he was 18. His friends were freed after a short stay in prison, but Fleming did 33 years.
“I had a public defender. They had parents, and their parents were there to get them out. They went home within a year or a year and a half,” Flemming says.
Following an award-winning report about his case in the Viginian Pilot, Charlottesville attorney April Wimberley took his case, and the parole board agreed that the three strikes rule did not apply to Fleming. Now 56, he works in a chicken processing plant, volunteers at the food bank and is trying to prevent others from ending up in prison.
“I have three guys under 13 or 14 that have been getting in trouble, being hard-headed. One of them has got an ankle bracelet on, and I’m just a big brother to them, and I tell them, ‘Man, it doesn’t have to be that way!’ You know they act like tough guys, but they’re coming around. They respect me,” says Flemming.
The new interpretation of three strikes means about 200 others are now eligible for early release. And how often do those freed on parole commit another crime? Adrianne Bennett says it’s one percent of the time.