Challenge Injustice ~ Virginia Parole Board

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April, 2001 (Publications)

Finding 4: Overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers of African Americans are under criminal supervision, overloading the criminal justice system in Virginia to a crisis level. Antecedents to this crisis are in the devastating consequences of educational, economic, and social disadvantages. The Committee finds that State and local governments pay little attention to the societal treatment of African Americans in general and consequences of drug law enforcement tactics in particular.

Recommendation 4.1: The Virginia General Assembly should place high priority on the work of its Joint Subcommittee Studying the Status and Needs of African American Males in Virginia, providing it with resources and staff support sufficient to fulfill its mandate to study the issues. Upon completion of the mandated study, it should take immediate action to pass corrective and ameliorative legislation.



Re: The Governor's Commission on Sentence and Parole Reform

We are a group of family members, friends and volunteers who are concerned about incarcerated men and women. Our concerns involves more than our close relationships with these men. We also are taxpayers who are concerned about the ineffective use of public funds for building additional prisons. We believe this approach is unsound and proven by history to be an investment in failure. We believe the Virginia Parole Board, through its arbitrary and capricious administration of the parole process, is contributing to the over-crowding problem by retaining in prison thousands of inmates who have demonstrated suitability for parole.

Incarcerated individuals are given sentences by the trial judge based on laws enacted by the General Assembly and a full understanding of the good-time system. The system of earning good-time toward discretionary and mandatory parole was established by the same legislative body and administered by the Department of Corrections. In a significant number of cases, the inmates abide by the conditions imposed on their behavior, meet all the requirements dictated by their treatment plan, and prepare adequate plan for their return to society (a place to live, a job, additional treatment, etc.). Then, time after time, they are denied parole for the "serious nature and circumstances of your crime." The parole board is permitted to disregard the laws concerning length of sentence and good-time and the discretion of the sentencing judge in favor of the value judgments of the individual parole board members as to the adequacy of time served.

By their arbitrary use of "the nature and circumstances of your crime" as the basis for denying parole, they send a clear message to inmates that nothing they do while in prison counts. Efforts to rehabilitate themselves are unimportant. Conduct is irrelevant. Planning for parole is futile. Release from prison will come only when the parole decides enough time has been served. The time has come to make the parole board accountable not only for those inmates it paroles, but for those it chooses not to parole.

The Commonwealth has in its prisons a literal "captive audience" to which to address specific treatment programs. Each inmates root problem and treatment needs are known. Yet, politicians opt for short-term "fixes" such as building more prisons, increasing sentences, and reducing opportunity for parole. These solutions are temporary in that almost every inmate will return to society at some point, perhaps later if the politicians have their way, and they are more embittered and less prepared to function in society upon release. Effectively, they have been "warehoused", untreated, and driven to such a degree of poverty that they are unable to support themselves and their families when released. If the statistics quoted by many are true that 75\% of crimes are committed by repeat offenders, there appear to be only two solutions to the crime and recidivism problems - lock up everyone who commits a crime for the remainder of his/her life or address the issues which brought him to prison. The first option, which seems to be the one in vogue today, has a tremendous cost, not only in dollars but in costs to human lives and families. Revenge cannot be the only goal of the justice system.

The parole process which affects a year (or 2-3 years in the case of deferrals) in the life of an individual and his family has been reduced to an average 5-7 minute deliberation by parole board members, acting individually rather than as a board. This deliberation follows a 15-20 minute interview by a parole examiner who makes a recommendation concerning parole based on the results of the interview and the input by the inmates counselor. The inmate sees his counselor at best only about four hours per year. There is no input from the correctional officers, work supervisors, or other staff members who observe the inmate on a daily basis.

The decision is therefore made at the pinnacle of ignorance by bureaucratic body which answers to no one for its lack of logic. The board does not participate in the problems caused by its decision. It does not have to deal with the disciplinary problems for the families of those denied parole who must struggle to survive yet another year of separation and loss of family income. It's time to restore a degree of credibility in the system for both inmates and their families.

The parole board is unrestrained from considering, as part of the decision parameters, convictions which have been overturned on appeal, and routinely require in parole interviews a defense of those charges. In effect, this procedure negates the decision of the appeals court and supreme court and substitutes and additional review of a crime or crimes already deemed absolved by the judicial system.

We, as citizens, have the same concern as others about the rising crime rate. But by our observation on a personal basis we see the "system" as a large part of the problem rather than being a viable element or its solution. Until some reason is restored concerning the length of time individuals are incarcerated without credible treatment programs and some sanity is restored in the system for considering parole suitability, the problems will remain unsolved.

In your study of the issues relating to sentencing and parole we request that you consider creative alternatives to the current bankrupt system and intelligently filter out the rhetoric of the current political campaigns designed to play to and prey on the fears of the public rather than seek long-term solutions. The belief that increasing sentences, delaying parole, and building more prisons solves the problem is unfounded, unreasonable, and unending.

We thank you in advance for the corrective actions that you will implement in this regard.

Respectfully submitted,
(Electronic Signature)