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The future of VA’s Parole Board in Republican control

Three people walking
Steve Helber/AP
Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, center, speaks with running mates, Attorney General-elect, Jason Miyares, left, and Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears, right, as they walk from a rally in Fredericksburg, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The Chair of Virginia’s Parole Board forwarded a press release Tuesday. The subject line: "setting the record straight."

In the release, Tonya Chapman details the agency's response to criticisms about who it releases from prison and how those decisions are made. Chapman also comments on what an incoming Republican Governor, who is hostile to the agency, means for board members.

“With every new administration, widespread change in state government is always expected, especially with a change in political parties,” Chapman said. “This transition will be no different, whether it is with the parole board or other gubernatorial appointees. It is important that the appointees share the philosophies of the incoming administration.”

Republicans first took aim at the parole board in May of 2020, after the board voted to release a man from prison named Vincent Martin. Martin was serving a life sentence for murdering Richmond Police Officer Michael Connors in 1979.

GOP lawmakers argued Martin shouldn’t be released, saying the process for granting his parole was illegal and unfair.

What followed was a saga involving a broader investigation into the parole board’s policies by the Office of The State Inspector General. OSIG determined the board did not follow the correction procedures in releasing Martin because it didn’t properly notify victims or local prosecutors.

The board responded that OSIG’s conclusions were based on biases, faulty assumptions, incorrect facts and a misunderstanding of certain procedures and state law. 

A second investigation by a third-party turned the lens on OSIG.  That probe found that the lead OSIG investigator in the Martin case was likely “impaired by personal bias.” But it didn’t dispute the inspector general’s findings about wrongdoing by the board. 

Republicans have continued their rallying cry to unravel the board by replacing its members and increasing its transparency.

State Sen. David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke) has filed A bill to make board member votes public. Last year, the proposal got the support of Democrats in the Senate but stalled in the House. 

“When someone is arrested, charged by a local prosecutor, found guilty in a court, presided over by a judge, all those people are public. The only people in the entire process that do not have their actions public are the parole board,” he said. 

Suetterlein goes further, however, saying he does not believe that people should be given the opportunity for parole in Virginia. 

State law gives the parole board, a group of five people appointed by the governor, the authority to grant, deny or revoke parole and detain parole violators. But they only consider geriatric requests for conditional release and the requests of prisoners who committed their crime prior to January 1, 1995, when Virginia abolished parole. 

Fixing the board is on top of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s agenda. He told CBS 6 this month that he'd change the board’s makeup on his first day in office. 

And Virginia’s next attorney general, Jason Miyares, called last year’s parole board upheaval a scandal, promising a victim-first approach in his parole and overall criminal justice agenda.

“We can’t forget about the victims,” he said. “There’s always two things they’re desperate for. They’re desperate for justice. But so many victims are so paranoid that they’re going to be forgotten, that their voices are going to be forgotten.”

Others, however, argue that Virginia’s parole system is already weighted against those who seek it. State Sen. Joe Morrisey (D-Richmond) said in October that he would introduce legislation to reinstate parole in the commonwealth. 

Matthieu Belanger, a graduate of the Washington and Lee School of Law who works with people seeking parole, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Patrick Wilson that people may have a different view of those seeking parole if they spoke with them.

“If members of the public actually met some of these offenders ... they would see that the offenders that they are so afraid of are just people. They’re just people who made terrible, horrible mistakes and who often had terrible, horrible traumatic childhoods,” he said.

This month, VDOC posted its latest recidivism rate of 22.3 % as being among the lowest in the country. In addition the discretionary parole and geriatric conditional release rates are even lower at 6.0% and 13%. 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.