- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

RICHMOND — Opponents of parole abolition in Virginia had argued that longer prison terms would increase the inmate population drastically and lead to an expensive prison-building frenzy.

Ten years later, the state has added seven prisons and about 8,000 inmates — a growth rate substantially lower than critics and even the General Assembly had expected.

The prison population has increased by nearly 30 percent since 1995, when parole abolition took effect, but the 35,429 inmates is far short of the 49,000 the Senate Finance Committee had predicted. Some critics had thought even that forecast was too low.

On an annual basis, the increases appear modest. The inmate census was unchanged in 1997. The biggest increase was 5.4 percent in 2002, according to the most recent Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) annual report.

“Sentencing reform and the abolition of parole did not have the dramatic impact on the prison population that some critics had once feared when the reforms were first enacted,” the report says.

The projected increases in the inmate population prompted a flurry of prison construction. Seven prisons with a total capacity for 8,210 inmates have opened since parole abolition, but none since 1999.

With prison space growing faster than the inmate population, the state leased vacant cells to the overcrowded prison systems of Connecticut and Texas until the number of Virginia prisoners caught up.

Officials say moving more nonviolent offenders into community correctional centers and alternative programs has helped control prison population growth. They also cite a decrease in violent crime as criminals are held behind bars longer.

“It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia Beach Republican, said of parole abolition. “We’ve seen the recidivism rate go down and the overall crime rate go down.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the violent-crime rate in Virginia went from 361.5 crimes per 100,000 population in 1995 to 291.4 per 100,000 in 2002, the last year for which figures are available.

Mr. McDonnell said a strong economy contributed to the improvement, but he also would like to think parole abolition had an effect. He was a member of the commission that drafted the parole abolition and “truth-in-sentencing” legislation.

“It’s worked well because it was based on a fairly simple premise: Most serious crimes are committed by people between the ages of 18 and 32. If you make the penalties so harsh for a first offense for violent crime that they get taken out of circulation, by the time they get out they are older and less likely to commit a new crime,” Mr. McDonnell said.

Under the old discretionary parole system, many inmates served as little as one-fourth of their sentences. They now are required to serve at least 85 percent, and the average is about 91 percent, according to the DCJS report.

Before 1995, first-degree murderers served an average of 12.4 years if they had no previous violent offense and 14.7 years if they did have a record. Those averages have increased to 32.2 years and 46 years, respectively, the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission said.

Similar increases have occurred for other violent crimes.

“In fact, a large number of violent offenders are serving two, three or four times longer under truth-in-sentencing than criminals who committed similar offenses did under the parole system,” the report said.

Republican George Allen made parole abolition the centerpiece of his campaign for governor in 1993.

The idea resonated with voters, who elected Mr. Allen in a landslide over Democrat Mary Sue Terry.

“I was just the conduit for the millions of Virginians who could not tolerate, could not countenance what I called ‘this lenient, dishonest system,’” Mr. Allen said at a press conference in October on the 10th anniversary of his signing the legislation, which took effect Jan. 1, 1995.

However, the sentencing reform still has its critics.

“We are making some very unwise investments in keeping some people in prison for the maximum,” said Delegate Vivian E. Watts, Fairfax Democrat who was the state secretary of public safety in the late 1980s. “There’s no discretion for looking into individual cases.”

Jean Auldridge, director of the Virginia chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, said some prisoners are being held long after they are no longer a danger to society.

“They feel hopeless,” she said. “Many of them have done everything they can do to be rehabilitated and are prepared to come out. They have families waiting for them, and they’re not letting them out.”

Mark Earley, a former state senator and attorney general who helped pass the no-parole legislation, now thinks it should be amended to give a break to inmates who truly have reformed.

Mr. Earley, who lost the 2001 gubernatorial election to Democrat Mark Warner, is president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the nation’s largest religious outreach to inmates.

“I don’t think there’s any question we did the right thing at the time,” Mr. Earley said. “We were finding an awful lot of violent crime caused by repeat offenders, and I thought it was imperative that this be changed. I would support the bill again.”

Mr. Earley said, however, that he and his colleagues failed to consider an important question: “After a significant period of the sentence is served, should we provide some opportunity for look-back?”

He suggested that an inmate who committed a violent crime as an impulsive youth but is now past the violence-prone years might be fit for release, provided he has made productive use of his time in prison.

Mr. McDonnell said the sort of “look-back provision” that Mr. Earley now favors probably would find little support in the General Assembly.

“There would be a concern that it would be undermining the abolition of parole,” Mr. McDonnell said.

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