- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Advocates for Virginia’s prisoners say a bill aimed at helping inmates who may have been given inflated sentences would have little impact.

Lawmakers have been wrestling with what to do about a group of inmates who were possibly unfairly punished because their juries weren’t informed that Virginia had abolished parole in 1995. Because judges weren’t required to tell jurors about the end of parole until 2000, some uninformed juries gave criminals longer sentences, thinking they would serve just part of their prison terms before being paroled, advocates and attorneys say.

A legislative panel on Monday endorsed the bill, which would allow certain inmates who fall into that category to become eligible for a parole hearing. But Republicans narrowed the bill so it applies only to nonviolent criminals still behind bars, of which there are likely few, said Richard Walker, CEO of Bridging the Gap in Virginia, a group that assists prisoners and ex-offenders.

“This bill serves no purpose the way it was written,” Walker said. “That was a means for them to appease us.”

The Virginia Sentencing Commission has said that about 400 people sentenced by juries between 1995 and 2000 remain incarcerated and may have been affected by jurors’ ignorance of parole’s abolition. It was unclear how many of those would be considered nonviolent offenders eligible for release.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration, which introduced the original bill, dismissed the criticism and insisted the legislation could have a substantial impact.

Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said that while he had hoped the bill would apply to all inmates sentenced during that time period, he believes a significant number of people who were convicted of drug crimes would get a chance for release under the revised measure. Moran couldn’t provide an exact number.

“I see it as substantial progress,” he said. “It’s recognition that this group deserves some relief.”

Until a state Supreme Court ruling mandated that judges tell juries about the end of parole in 2000, many courts refused to do so - even when the jurors asked. The Supreme Court later ruled it “simply defies reason” not to give jurors the information, and said inmates who had already appealed their prison terms could be resentenced.

The bill still has to make its way through a finance committee before it can get to the Senate floor.

Even if qualified inmates are given parole hearings, their chances of being released are likely small: The Virginia Parole Board’s release rate hovers around 3 percent.

The bill faces criticism from the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, which told lawmakers Monday that the potential problem is being overblown.

“I’ve tried over 250 jury trials. Occasionally a jury will ask a question. But to suggest that this happens all the time or is actually a regular practice is certainly not my experience,” said Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen.

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Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer.

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