- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - State Republicans criticized Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s establishment of a commission to study whether Virginia’s abolition of parole in the 1990s has been good for the state.

Calling the commission a politically motivated “song and dance,” GOP lawmakers said at a news conference Monday that Virginia’s current criminal justice system works well at keeping violent criminals behind bars. The lawmakers also said that reviving parole in Virginia would hurt victims of past crimes, especially women who were sexually abused, and that Virginia’s criminal justice system is not overly punitive.

“Our system is working,” said Del. Todd Gilbert, a former prosecutor, “we have a crime rate that’s the lowest it’s been in decades.”

A few minutes later at a different Capitol conference room, the commission began its first meeting. Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney instructed the group’s members not to “be threatened by the demagoguery that infects the discussion on both sides of the aisle.”

“This is not about reversal. Rather, it’s about whether the current policy works, and if it’s fair,” said Stoney, who is the commission’s co-chairman.

Justice reform advocates in Virginia have argued that the state is currently incarcerating too many people for too long at significant cost to taxpayers.

Monday’s war of words highlights what could be a significant political issue in the run up to November’s legislative elections.

Former Republican Gov. George Allen found political success in 1993 by campaigning on the abolishment of parole during his gubernatorial campaign. At the time, criminals in Virginia were serving just a fraction of their sentence. For example, prisoners convicted of first-degree murder were averaging a ten-year prison time on a 35-year sentence in 1993, according to state data. Under Allen, Virginia instituted “truth in sentencing” reforms that require inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.

Republicans said Monday that those reforms have worked, noting that the percentage of incarcerated prisoners in Virginia have committed a violent crime has gone up and is currently at 80 percent.

McAuliffe has said he wants the commission to focus on whether nonviolent offenders are being imprisoned too long, but one of the early issues discussed at the commission meeting was what constitutes a “violent” offender and whether certain drug-related crimes should remained included in the state’s definition.

The commission is set to make its initial recommendations to the governor by Nov. 2.

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