What does “worked” mean? What does “success” truly mean? If it means having offenders spend the majority of their sentence behind bars and not get released early, then sure it worked. If it means seeing crime rates drop, then one could argue it worked. But, there are so many other factors associated – really so many factors that it is close to impossible to give a definitive answer one way or another. So here goes – my attempt to explain many of the associated factors.
Allen’s plan could be seen as a “success” in that it established truth in sentencing through the requirement of serving 85 percent of the time they were sentenced. When looking at the Virginia statistics 12 years after (2008), it was found that those convicted of first-degree murder spent 91 percent of their sentence in prison, with the average sentence being 32 years, rather than 12 years with parole. The sentence of “life in prison,” now truly means “life in prison.”
Since abolishing parole, the violent crime rate in Virginia reduced by 23 percent, the murder rate decreased by 30 percent, and forcible rape decreased by 15 percent. When examining the crimes and statistics before 1995, it was found that previous offenders committed the majority of these serious and violent offenses; therefore if a rapist serves 18 years rather than 6 years, he will not be able to hang out in parking lots waiting for his next victim (Allen, 2008).
However, the reason for the decline in the crime rates is debatable and hard to pin down. Many believe it is because of the abolition of parole – Virginia releases less people than ever before. The idea is that individuals have ‘aged-out’ of crime when released now since they are spending longer behind bars, thus a lower crime rate. However, the relatively new phenomenon of re-entry, programs, and treatment also likely is contributing to the decrease. Historically, upon incarceration, offenders were simply warehoused – they were not provided with an opportunity for programming. Thus, breeding better criminals during incarceration. However, with today’s strong focus on providing opportunities, offenders are now being equipped with the tools to be successful upon release. They are being provided with tools that directly assist in overcoming the barriers to entry into the community. Furthermore, according to Dr. John Reitzel, with the Department of Criminal Justice at California State University, San Bernardino, “both violent and property crime started dropping in Virginia a few years before the state abolished parole. And, we must keep in mind that nationally, crime started dropped in 1993 too.”
The examination of recidivism rates also can provide some insight, however, this too is fairly complex. Currently, Virginia has the second lowest recidivism rate in the nation. However, that rate is calculated if an individual gets released from prison and then goes back to prison – this means they are convicted of a crime and sentenced to over 12 months. So, if someone re-offends and is found guilty but sentenced to 11 months, they are not seen to have recidivated. I believe this truly presents a problem when truly trying to define success. From working in a jail full time, I can tell you the true recidivism rate in Virginia is much higher than this statistic claims.
Although there has been success seen, there are also problems present with the implementation and practice of the abolition of parole. Currently there are over 37,000 individuals incarcerated in Virginia, of which about 3,500 were eligible for parole in 2013 because their crimes and imprisonment occurred before the abolition in 1995. The Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants-Virginia, Inc. (Virginia C.U.R.E.) claim that all of these prisoners were sentenced by prosecutors and judges with the assumption that the length of their sentence would be subject to mitigation through the consideration of parole. However, because parole was abolished, the likelihood of receiving it is slim. In 2012, the Parole Board heard 3,156 cases, of which only 116 were granted parole, according to Virginia C.U.R.E. – this is just 3.7 percent of those who were eligible. However, Bill Muse former Chairman of the Parole Board under the McDonnell administration had slightly different views: “The rate during McDonnell administration was about 4%. About 92% of those who were eligible were serving long sentences on extreme cases. The “easy” ones were already released.”
Of those receiving denials, there were at least 44 percent of the decisions that stated denial because of the “serious nature and circumstances of the crime.” As such, many prisoners were receiving this same response year after year. Moreover, many denials from the Board did not suggest their own comments or guidelines, such as changes in behavior, their motivational levels, development of education, release plans, or employment skills attained while imprisoned. However, in 2013 legislation was passed and then signed by Governor McDonnell requiring the Parole Board list specific reasons why an individual was denied so the individual would know what they should or should not be focusing on.
Muse explained, “Every parole case is entirely different and you have to look at them different. One of the commons questions asked is ‘he got parole and has a similar offense doing the same number of years as my son, so why won’t you let him go.’ But we have to look at them different – there aren’t two offenses that are exactly the same – one type of murder may occur because of a drug deal gone bad and the other an execution style robbery – even if they have the same sentence, they are still very different. We also have the take into consideration when the crime occurred – a 16 or 17 year old would be considered differently than someone older because of their age when committed.”
Muse explained how the parole board also examines things the offender was involved with while in prison and if they took advantage of each opportunity they had, such as work, religion, or schooling. Disciplinary issues while incarcerated are also considered – did they cause staff a hard time, did they obey the rules? “If you can’t behave in prison, why would we expect you to behave when you are on the street,” Muse remarked. The Board also looked at factors associated with release – supportive family, housing, under what circumstances will they live (in same neighborhood), will they continue with addiction treatment if needed, among others? “All of these things are taken into consideration – and more really. All of these factors contribute to why each case is treated individually.
The Board does not personally interview the prisoner or confer with the prisoner’s counselor and only allows one member of the Board to meet with a family member or other representative. In over 70 percent of other states, however, Board panels carry out inmate interviews. Under the Board procedures currently followed, “some parole eligible inmates are serving longer terms than some non-parole inmates convicted of the same crime and sentenced under the state’s post 1995 sentencing guidelines” (Green, 2007). It is believed by many that the Board’s behaviors are inconsistent with the original intention of the General Assembly, through retroactively abolishing parole for prisoners who came in before 1995.
On the other hand, according to Jane Alford, who has worked in the field for over 33 years, “There is no meaningful system to evaluate cases for release. The information collected regarding an inmate and progress made while incarcerated seems to be ignored. Programs and therapeutic goals seem to have no impact at all. Decades go by with some inmates having no infractions, completing all possible programs available, receiving excellent work and other evaluations, and having a good release plan, and they are remain in prison. Often psychological testing, risk assessments, and sex offender evaluations are conducted by outside national and internationally known experts in the field. These licensed practitioners with a medical or doctoral degree have more relative knowledge and experience than the entire Parole Board collectively, yet their opinions are often disregarded and disrespected. One board member commented to a retained forensic psychologist that she thought his work was “OK,” unlike the evaluations provided by many other practitioners. This particular psychologist has done over 7,000 evaluations for the prosecution and defense and is retained by DOC. He is far better than Ok. Other highly credentialed professionals are seemingly considered sub standard by a member who has no relative degree, training, history of publication, or involvement and study of clinical trials. Another comment publically made by a board member was that inmates convicted of sexually based offenses were “not going to be released” despite the Governors clear directive otherwise. Inmates, particularly geriatrics meeting all the criteria for release after serving long sentences, still are not released. Many test out as zero little risk with the institutional psychologist and psychiatrist requesting release and their opinions are ignored as well. Only 53 inmates have made Geriatric Release in the past 13 years when there are between 350 and 400 eligible. This population is the most expensive and the lowest risk. The parole process is politically based with no reasonable rationale to back up decisions. The system is entirely broken.”
There are also budgetary reasons why taking parole more seriously is necessary. First, in 2007, Virginia was in the highest of all states in the United States in the population growth of prisons, which added 1,867 new prisoners (Pew Center on the States, 2008). The annual cost to imprison one individual annually was $23,000 (Department of Corrections, 2008). Further, 6.7 percent of Virginia’s general budget fund and 11.7 percent of the employees are devoted to the prison system. In 2015, Virginia is expected to spend $1 billion in prison related costs. With the continued budget short falls in Virginia, the increasing prison population is putting a further strain on the budget and depriving other important areas, such as education and transportation.
Further exasperating the issue is geriatric release, which was briefly mentioned above by Alford. Geriatric release is for elderly people; if and individual is 60 years old and has served 10 years or 65 and served 5 years, an individuals is eligible to petition the board for parole. This applies even if convicted after 1995 when parole was abolished. Muse explained, “We didn’t have a whole lot of those granted, but the statistics are pretty skewed because those who were eligible we typically let go under regular parole and not geriatric review. The statistics show we didn’t let many of those folks go, but in actuality more of them got out than shown because they were released on regular parole.”
Various interest groups and lobbyist organizations are working extremely hard to curb these rates and fix this problem. However, it is extremely difficult to gain support. The Governor and the Parole Board do not want to be seen as soft on crime. Moreover, these individuals do not want to take a risk. If someone is released on parole, and recidivates by raping or killing an individual, it would fall back on either the Parole Board or the Governor who appointments parole board members. The situations discussed previously are those that are all too familiar and no one wants to be held accountable for such a situation. Moreover, victims, their families, and friends lobby strong against releasing prisoners back into society in fear of recidivism.
Does former Chairman Muse think it was a success? “I think it’s good in some respects – there are some people who shouldn’t get out or serve long sentences. It is fairer for juries who are giving sentences to know what they would serve if sentencing them. Unintended consequences are that the prison population has grown substantially. Particularly now we are seeing prison population aging up – a lot older average population – and with all of the medical expenses involved, it is more expensive to house inmates now than when there was parole.”
So the question remains, what is the answer and how is this situation resolved? I do not believe that the goal should be to release all ‘post-1995’ inmates back into society, nor does it mean that offenders shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of their actions through incarceration. However, giving each prisoner a fair hearing, which should include factors previously discussed, including inmate interviews and an explanation, would be a good start and a step in the right direction. Although there are some prisoners who absolutely deserve to remain behind bars for a long time, there are circumstances where, if given a proper hearing, it would be found that the individual deserves to be placed back into society with certain guidelines. Furthermore, with the strong efforts related to rehabilitation and re-entry being put forth by the Virginia Department of Corrections, offenders are more ready today than ever to have a successful re-entry back into the community.
Muse had a further suggestion that would be advantageous for the Commonwealth to consider: “there should be some type of blend where those with non-violent offenses or shorter sentences may have a chance at parole. Someone may get 20 years for burglary and be non-violent, such as breaking into someone’s garage. It could be their first offense and they have a good prison record – that person should have a chance of getting out a little earlier. Also, drug offenders – they probably deserve a chance of getting out a little earlier.” Muse goes further to clarify, “I don’t think it would be great to bring back parole all together, but we may want to bring it back for certain offenses – and it would help the prison problem some. They can be released and supervised in the community instead of in prison.”