Virginia Senate votes to make many killers eligible for release at age 50

Virginia Senate votes to make many killers eligible for release at age 50
Dorothea Puente as she appeared in the early part of her killing spree (Image: YouTube screen grab)

The Virginia Senate voted 21-to-19 on Monday to make prison inmates (including many murderers) eligible for “geriatric release” as early as age 50.  The vote was largely along party lines, with all Democrats except Lynwood Lewis voting for the bill, and all Republicans except Emmett Hanger voting against it. The bill, SB 624, is now expected to be approved by Virginia’s House of Delegates, which has a larger Democratic majority.

The bill effectively reinstates parole for many long-time inmates. Parole was largely abolished by the Virginia legislature back in 1995. The bill also guts Virginia’s three strikes law, which previously required life without parole for offenders convicted of three separate murders, rapes, or robberies, or any combination of the three. Restrictions on parole reflected the fact that murderers sometimes kill again after being released.

SB 624 would let inmates seek release at age 50 if they have served 20 years, or age 55 if they’ve served 15. Previously, the minimum age for geriatric release was at least 60. The murder rate is much higher among people in their 50s than in their 60s, and a larger share of famous serial killers were active in their 50s than in their 60s. For example, John Reginald Christie, Dorothea Puente, and Albert Fish all started killing in their 50s. Many other serial killers continued killing into their 50s, such as Peter Tobin (up to age 60), John Reginald Christie (up to age 53), and Ted Kaczynski (into his 50s).

Inmates would not be eligible for geriatric release under the bill if they committed a “Class 1 felony.” But even most premeditated murders are not Class 1 felonies, which include only a narrow range of killings, such as murders of cops or young children. In Virginia, “First-degree murder is classified as a Class 2 felony,” notes a web site about state laws.

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It is strange for the bill to give middle-aged inmates “geriatric release.” Dictionaries define “geriatric” as meaning elderly, and elderly as starting at age 60 or 65. People in their 50s are defined as middle-aged, not geriatric.

The bill will likely increase Virginia’s crime rate. Keeping inmates in prison rather than releasing them can reduce the crime rate. Parolees commonly commit more crimes after being released. Statutory sentence enhancements have been found to reduce crime. Conversely, lenient penalties are less likely to deter crime.

This bill would effectively turn many life-without-parole sentences for  murder into sentences as short as 15 years. It could affect a lot of cases: Hundreds of murderers in Virginia committed their crimes at age 40 or over in just the period from 2001 to 2005, and many of them would be eligible for release under this bill.

For many types of killings, life without parole will effectively end as an option under Virginia law, when this bill becomes law. It is odd to see that happen in Virginia, which was once a conservative, anti-crime state. Life without parole is common for murder even in many liberal states.

The short sentences for murder that result from this bill could provoke a real backlash from survivors of murder victims. Even survivors who publicly oppose the death penalty typically want the killer to receive life without parole, for the sake of public safety, and their own security and peace of mind.

Supporters of the bill cited low recidivism rates by offenders previously given “geriatric release” in their 60s or later ages. But that doesn’t justify granting geriatric release to people in their 50s, who are younger and more capable of committing murder and rape. Moreover, recent changes to the parole board’s composition may lead to higher rates of geriatric release in the future, that result in the release of higher-risk offenders.

Supporters of the bill cite the high medical costs incurred by older inmates and the resultant savings to state prisons when someone is granted conditional release. But most of those savings are illusory. As a former state official notes, the medical costs for the state likely do not go away when a prison inmate is released: “The offender will likely still be on Medicaid. It is true that there will some savings because Medicaid will cover outpatient costs for a released inmate, but not those of one incarcerated. However, the big costs are inpatient costs and Medicaid covers those whether an offender is in prison or not.”

Moreover, people in their 50s have lower average medical costs than people in their 60s. So releasing inmates in their 50s makes less sense than releasing them in their 60s.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for CNSNews.com and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”

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