At 6%, Virginia's parole rate is among nation's lowest

Virginia Parole Board denies 94% of requests

By Laurence Hammack
The Roanoke Times

RICHMOND, Va. — The image of a repentant prisoner appearing before a stern-faced parole board is more myth than reality in Virginia. The Virginia Parole Board doesn't meet the inmates it considers for early release, relying on parole examiners who interview prisoners and submit reports. In fact, the board rarely meets at all, according to a lawsuit against it.

Often working from their homes, the five board members review electronic files and vote one at a time whether someone should remain in prison. They draw salaries of as much as $125,107 to handle a caseload that has shrunk by nearly two-thirds since 1995. The five-member panel is a throwback to the years when many of the inhabitants of Virginia's prisons went home after serving just a fraction of their terms.

Although the General Assembly abolished parole in 1995, the board still reviews the cases of inmates convicted before then. But today's parole board has become a board of denial, saying no 94 percent of the time to inmates seeking early release -- one of the nation's lowest parole rates.

The tough stance all but eliminates the chances of early release, 11 inmates are claiming in a lawsuit against the board.

"They sort of operate like a star chamber," said Steve Northup of Richmond, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit. "There is no doubt that what they do is done in total secrecy, and there's no way to hold them accountable for their denials."

The lawsuit will attempt to force the parole board to consider factors other than the seriousness of an inmate's crime, such as a lack of other criminal record and progress toward rehabilitation.

Some critics wonder whether the parole board's three full-time members and two part-time members have enough work, considering that the number of eligible inmates has dropped from about 12,000 in 1995 to about 4,700 today.

"They work out of their homes, so who knows how many hours they are putting in," said Carla Peterson, executive director of the prisoner advocacy group Virginia CURE, or Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants.

Parole board members are appointed by the governor and earn annual salaries between $125,107 for the chair and $52,582 for the two part-time members. In addition to considering early release cases, the board investigates clemency petitions and handles parole revocations.

As part of this year's budget process, the General Assembly is considering making all five positions part time. Earlier this year, Vice Chairman Carol Ann Sievers was not reappointed.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bob McDonnell said he is considering replacing some or all of the remaining members. Helen Fahey, chairwoman of the board, declined to comment on its practices, citing the lawsuit.

The board is represented by the state attorney general's office, which last week filed a motion to have the case dismissed. Parole is a discretionary matter in Virginia, the motion stated, and convicted felons have no standing to assert their due process rights have been denied. Because none of the 11 inmates has served their full terms, "the Parole Board's failure to grant early parole release to plaintiffs does not increase the measure of the punishment imposed by the Virginia courts and juries," Assistant Attorney General Richard Vorhis wrote.

Other complaints in the lawsuit -- that the parole board has discontinued a risk assessment tool to evaluate inmates, that it fails to meet with them, and that it does not solicit input from prison officials -- are irrelevant, the state maintains.

"The decision to release an inmate on parole is not subject to crossing off items on a checklist," Vorhis wrote.

Yet some of Virginia's practices set it apart from other states. More than 70 percent of parole boards meet face to face with candidates, according to a survey by the Association of Paroling Authorities International, a professional organization with a membership of more than 500 parole officials.

According to attorneys who filed the lawsuit, Virginia's parole rate is one of the lowest in the nation. Over the past five years, the average grant rate was 5.6 percent, down from 42 percent two decades ago. Different systems from state to state make comparing parole grant rates an "apples and grapes" exercise, said Keith Hardison, chief administrative officer for the Association of Paroling Authorities.

When Virginia abolished parole, one goal was to increase the punishment for violent offenders through revised sentencing guidelines. Nonviolent offenders, for the most part, received the same basic punishment as they had under the old system. (In other words, shorter actual sentences, but with no parole.) Since then, 21 percent of the parole-eligible prisoners have actually served longer than they would have under current sentencing guidelines, according to a report last year from the state Criminal Sentencing Commission.

Some inmates sentenced under what then-Gov. George Allen called the "liberal, lenient" parole system are being punished more harshly than those sentenced under the beefed-up system.

Behind the academic discussions of parole are the faces of 11 convicted killers. Sharon Burnette, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, was convicted in 1982 of killing the clerk of a Roanoke convenience store. Burnette, who told a fellow inmate she shot Robin Creasy just to see the fear in her eyes, was sentenced to life plus one year in prison. Creasy's brother-in-law, Tom Witt, is skeptical of Burnette's claims that she has reformed herself and would no longer pose a threat if released. Witt, who once was a work-release coordinator for a local jail, said many inmates are unrealistic about their chances of finding a job and staying out of trouble on the outside.

"There's nothing I can think of that they could do to rehabilitate her," Witt said of Burnette. "So what would be the point of putting her on the street and taking a chance?"

Copyright 2010 The Roanoke Times

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