Twenty-five years after Virginia abolished parole, hundreds of inmates will be eligible for release under a bill recently signed by the governor.
Sponsored by Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, House Bill 35 would grant parole eligibility for individuals sentenced to prison as juveniles after serving 20 years. It will also ban life sentences without the possibility for parole for minors.
HB 35 will immediately affect 720 people currently incarcerated who were sentenced for life, according to legislative analysis.
The legislation passed the House, 56-44, in January and the Senate, 28-11, on Feb. 17. It will take effect July 1.
“House Bill 35 is a landmark piece of legislation that gives an opportunity for youths who have committed serious crimes and repented a future opportunity for social redemption,” Lindsey said in a statement.
Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but inmates could still get parole if they were sentenced before the law went into effect, were sentenced under the Youthful Offenders Act or are eligible for geriatric parole.
Virginia Beach criminal defense attorney Stephen Pfeiffer said that, though the legislation won’t have a major impact on his day-to-day practice, it could offer his juvenile clients more “negotiating power.”
“[HB 35] may actually influence them to consider options to plead cases when otherwise they wouldn’t plead,” Pfeiffer said. “Likewise, if there’s a case where an extremely tough offer is being made by the commonwealth’s attorney… they might think, why not go to trial and at least try the case? Because even if I lose, I still have the opportunity for parole after 20 years.”
Pfeiffer noted that the law has potential to provide juvenile offenders with hope for a life after incarceration.
Some Republicans have called HB 35 a “disappointment.”
“Democrats have said over and over again that they want to keep Virginians safe, but they continue to cast votes that will give dangerous criminals the opportunity to get out of jail early,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, wrote in an email.
HB 35 complements Gov. Northam’s criminal justice reform plan, which includes decriminalizing marijuana and raising the threshold amount for felony larceny.
“Criminal justice reform includes reforming parole,” the Democratic governor said. “This is about simple justice and fairness.”
Gilbert, a criminal defense attorney, said that while no criminal justice system is perfect, he fears Northam’s plan for reform will push the commonwealth into a “pro-criminal direction.”
“For every politician who thinks they see injustice or inequality for convicted criminals, they need to understand that for the vast majority of those examples there’s also a victim,” Gilbert said.
With HB 35 signed into law, Virginia becomes the 23rd state, plus Washington, DC, to end sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors.
But even advocates question the effectiveness of the bill. The Appeal, which covers criminal justice issues nationwide, observed that it remains uncertain how much relief HB 35 will provide in practice.
“It will only make people eligible to go in front of a parole board, with no guarantee that anyone gets paroled. And the recent history of Virginia’s board is to quasi-systematically deny the applications it receives. This signals the importance of strengthening the parole process alongside reforms that expand eligibility,” editor Daniel Nichanian wrote.
Just because more inmates are now eligible for parole doesn’t mean it will be granted.
According to a Capital News Services analysis of the Virginia Parole Board, the vast majority of parole applications are denied: 94% since 2014. The rate of denial was above 90% for all age groups.
Pfeiffer agreed that the state’s parole board is currently “out of practice.”
“Who makes up the parole board and how they view this going forward will have a substantial impact on whether or not [HB 35] will make it more likely that juvenile defendants will be released earlier into their incarceration period, or if this is just going to be a nice thought but not actually put into practice,” he said.
Other related proposals under consideration by the Assembly this year would grant eligibility for a parole hearing to inmates who are terminally ill or physically disabled. Others would lower the eligibility age for “geriatric release” to as young as 50.
There are also proposals to reinstate parole for all prisoners.
While Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Gregory J. Underwood declined to comment, his spokesperson, Amanda Howie, wrote in an email, “Our of work of balancing holding defendants accountable, supporting crime victims and the safety of the public and following the law continues.”