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'95 Law Denies Early Release to Nearly All of State's Prisoners

(by Sandhya Somashekhar, Washington Post Staff Writer, January 18, 2009)

Lawmakers and prison advocates say the Virginia Parole Board has virtually stopped granting parole to thousands of inmates convicted of crimes before the state halted the practice more than a decade ago.

Of the 4,500 Virginia prisoners eligible for parole in 2008, about 95 percent were denied early release, which is among the highest rejection rates in the country, according to experts. Many were convicted before 1995, when Virginia adopted a "truth in sentencing" policy that required felons to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

State officials say the reason for the small percentage is that most nonviolent criminals have been released in the past 14 years, leaving mainly rapists and murderers who might still pose a threat. In many cases, applications are rejected because of the "serious nature and circumstances of the crime."

The decision process has raised questions among state leaders who are extremely tough on crime, who say the parole board appears to be rubber-stamping applications rather than giving prisoners the thorough reviews required by law.

"There's not a more hard-on-crime person in the state legislature than me," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "My theory is that you give everybody a fair trial, and if they're found guilty, you crush them. But it's very important that they get a fair trial. . . . What's happening to these guys is not fair."

Helen F. Fahey, chairwoman of the five-member parole board, said each inmate gets a fair assessment. Though the board does not meet or hold hearings, each case is assigned a parole examiner, who conducts interviews, reads prison files and makes recommendations. In some cases, she said, no amount of good behavior in prison justifies releasing a dangerous criminal into society.

"The idea that we don't study every case is not true," Fahey said. "The main reason that every one of these people is still incarcerated is because of the violent crime they committed. Public safety has got to be the primary consideration when considering their release."

The parole board is appointed by the governor. Fahey, former U.S. attorney in Alexandria and chief prosecutor in Arlington County, was first appointed during Sen. Mark R. Warner's (D) tenure as governor. She was reappointed by his successor, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for Kaine, said the governor has "all the confidence in the world" in the parole board and its decisions.

Still, state lawmakers are seeking greater accountability. State Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) plans to introduce legislation this month that would require the board to study cases more carefully and provide more detailed reasons for denial beyond the severity of the crime.

In all, about 8,500 Virginia inmates are either eligible or will be eligible for parole before the completion of their sentences, according to the parole board. While many have been in prison since before 1995, others were released but returned to prison after violating the terms of their early release or for committing another crime.

It is difficult to compare parole grant rates among states because of vastly different laws that govern the practice. However, several people who study criminal justice issues said a 95 percent rejection rate is probably one of the highest in the nation.

"As a former parole board chairman and a person who has worked in parole for over 30 years, I can tell you that a parole release rate of 5 percent frankly strikes me as absurd," said Mario A. Paparozzi, head of the department of sociology and criminal justice at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. "With over 8,000 inmates locked up, it can't be that only five out of every 100 deserve to get out and 95 don't."

Inmates do not apply for parole in Virginia. Rather, once eligible, they typically come back annually for review. Although the parole board reviews thousands of cases each year, Fahey said, all receive a careful review by each member. A majority of board members must agree on granting early release.

The issue was brought to the attention of Petersen and other state officials by the Virginia chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, which advocates for the rights of inmates and their families.

Jae George is a member of the group. Her son, Gary A. Kammeter, was sentenced in 1995 to life in prison in the planned killing of a sheriff's deputy in Mathews County and the death of a teenage girl in Middlesex County. The girl was shot as Kammeter and a companion were looking for another teenager who had reneged on a marijuana deal, according to media reports.

Kammeter, 33, was not the triggerman in the incident that killed 15-year-old Jamie Lee Thomas. He has been a model prisoner, his mother said, earning his bachelor's degree in liberal arts. He was denied parole in 2007 and 2008 because of the seriousness of his crimes, and his next opportunity before the board is 2011.

"I have just seen this snot-nosed teenager rise into a wonderful young man, and I will not let him waste his life in prison," said George, 51, who owns a restaurant and sports bar in Virginia's Northern Neck.

George said she was led to believe that Kammeter could be released as early as 10 years after his conviction. Indeed, many lawyers and state officials say criminals often were subject to stiffer sentences before 1995, when it was assumed that they might be released before the official end of their prison terms. Others take issue with that assertion.

Inmates are never guaranteed parole, no matter how good their behavior, said Richard Cullen, a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general who helped craft Virginia's no-parole policy.

And in the 1990s, he said, it was widely believed that Virginia was too liberal in granting parole, with some offenders serving just a sixth of their sentences. The issue so galvanized the electorate that it helped propel Republican George Allen to victory in his 1993 campaign for governor.

"It was amazing how poorly we were doing in Virginia in terms of keeping the truly violent criminals behind bars," Cullen said. "People in prison for rape and physical assault and murder and manslaughter were serving only a fraction of their sentences."

After the General Assembly adopted the no-parole policy, which was part of broader reforms in criminal justice, "it certainly in my view became harder to get out on parole, even though technically the law did not affect those who were already in prison," said Cullen, now a Richmond lawyer. "And I think that is a good thing."

According to parole board statistics, the proportion of inmates granted parole sharply declined in the 1990s, from 47 percent in 1990 to about 14 percent by 1995. The percentage declined further in 1999, when Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) appointed the board.

Petersen is a supporter of Virginia's no-parole policy, which is credited with discouraging crime and keeping violent criminals behind bars longer. But he says it is unfair to judge criminals who were convicted under the old law by current standards. And the parole board ought to consider more factors than the severity of the crime for which they have been sentenced.

"There may be certain crimes where the person must serve a full term," Petersen said. "But what I'm concerned about is the wholesale dismissal of the entire process."

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