Big prison releases likely in Virginia as liberal legislature takes advantage of pandemic

Big prison releases likely in Virginia as liberal legislature takes advantage of pandemic
Former Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam (Image: Richmond Times-Dispatch)

With the public distracted by the pandemic, Virginia’s liberal legislature is likely to pass laws that would release many prisoners. A special legislative session begins on Aug. 18, to address criminal justice and COVID-19 issues. The Democratic Caucus has agreed to massively expand good-time credits for most prisoners, effectively shortening their sentences. That bill, Senate Bill 5034, is described in more detail at this link.

Parole would also be reinstated in Virginia, if legislation proposed by State Sen.  John Edwards has his way. Virginia largely abolished parole in 1995, but Edwards, the chairman of the the Senate Judiciary Committee, would not only reinstate it, but apply parole retroactively to people already convicted of crimes. Legislation proposed by Sen. John Bell would expand geriatric or medical release for inmates who have committed any type of crime, except those who have committed Class 1 (capital) murder.

Cumulatively, these bills would result in shorter average sentences for inmates. Shorter sentences can lead to an increased crime rate, while longer sentences tend to reduce the crime rate.  The National Bureau of Economic Research has a web page titled “Sentence Enhancements Reduce Crime.” It discusses how California’s Proposition 8 reduced crime by keeping “repeat offenders” off of the streets. According to the study it cites, “because convicted criminals were serving longer sentences, years after the law’s change they were still locked up, rather than out on the streets committing crime.” Murderers sometimes commit murder again after being released from prison, even those released from prison at an advanced age.

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Virginia largely abolished parole 25 years ago, due to discontent over the fact that criminals were serving only about 30% of their sentences before being released. But parole would be restored even for murderers and rapists by Edwards’s bill, SB 5016. It would retroactively extend parole rights to current inmates, as well as giving future criminals the right to seek parole. Most willful and premeditated murders are Class 2 offenses, for which parole would be available after 15 years.

Retroactively making prisoners eligible for parole could result in unfair double-counting: It could shorten sentences that a jury already shortened based on the assumption that parole does not exist. Under the Virginia Supreme Court’s Fishback decision, criminals have been entitled to seek a shorter sentence from the jury based on the argument that parole was not available.

Parole can be sought annually: before parole was abolished, relatives of murder victims would show up at parole hearings, every year, in an effort to keep the killer of their loved one from being released. Testifying before the parole board took its toll on survivors, forcing them to relive the crime.

Permissive attitudes towards crime and punishment seem to increase crime rates. Forty years ago, Virginia’s Fairfax County had a similar crime rate to Montgomery County, Maryland, which has similar demographics. But that changed, after prison sentences became longer in Virginia, and Virginia eliminated parole. Fairfax County ended up with a much lower crime rate than Montgomery County.

By 2012, Maryland was among the top ten most dangerous states, with a gun-related homicide rate of 6.4 per 100,000, according to the Justice Department. In 2007-2010, Maryland’s gun-related homicide rate was 5.53 per 100,000 versus 3.16 per 100,000 in Virginia.

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 and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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