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Governor's commission stops short of recommending bringing back parole

(by Graham Moomaw, Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 18, 2015, Link)

The commission Gov. Terry McAuliffe established to study the possible re-establishment of parole in Virginia will not recommend bringing the system back, at least not any time soon.

As the Commission on Parole Review finished its work Wednesday by finalizing recommendations for the governor and General Assembly, the group discussed bringing back parole for nonviolent offenders or creating a second look” system that could allow sentences to be re-evaluated, but the panel concluded both ideas need further study.

A reality that didn’t go unrecognized was the fact that any recommendations would be subject to approval by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which has been openly hostile to the idea of undoing the state’s 1995 prohibition on parole.

“We’re working within some constraint here,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran, a co-chairman of the commission. “The other partner in all of this is the legislative arm.”

McAuliffe and others have pointed to the $1 billion the state spends each year to incarcerate criminals as a sign that criminal justice policies, particularly as they relate to drug offenders, should be revisited. Republicans have argued that the parole ban has worked by keeping violent offenders off the streets and ensuring they serve the sentences received.

As the 24-member commission received wrap-up reports from three subcommittees, commission member Bobby N. Vassar, a former chief counsel for the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, said a return to parole wouldn’t require the release of any inmates, but would give some the option of getting out early based on their conduct.

“It’s not saying open the gates, but that there be an opportunity for offenders who have changed,” said Vassar. “And we know through our Judeo-Christian heritage that people can change.”

McAuliffe established the 24-member commission in July to study potential improvements to the criminal-justice system, with a particular focus on reviewing policies on how prisoners are released and the costs involved.

Though the commission didn’t reach a final recommendation on the issue of parole, the group will suggest a series of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing recidivism, aiding ex-offenders and reforming criminal codes to reclassify certain offenses.

The commission’s recommendations, expected to be formally packaged within the next few weeks, include proposals to raise the threshold for thefts charged as grand larceny from $200 to $500, reclassify some crimes such as burglary of unoccupied places and illicit weapon possession as nonviolent offenses and encouraging the expansion of “ban the box” policies to government contractors and other businesses.

“The issue of criminal justice reform is the issue du jour around the country,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney, also a commission co-chairman. “And I think the governor taking the necessary steps by putting this commission together has shown the public where he thinks we can make Virginia a better place.”

If state policymakers approve, the commission hopes to continue its work beyond the initial term of its creation.

The commission’s chairman, former Attorney General Mark L. Earley, a Republican, said he was a strong backer of abolishing parole in 1993, but he thinks those who supported abolition at the time “went too far.”

“With the proper organization and leadership and grass-roots support,” Earley said, “I think this issue is not as insurmountable as we think it is.”


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