Parole was abolished in Virginia 25 years ago, and now some in the General Assembly, probably including the governor, want to bring it back. The idea has a lot of merit.
However, here’s the most important question: Do we do this in a rush, bringing back the old and dysfunctional system, or do we replace it with something better? The answer should seem obvious.
If you watch “Law and Order” or any other cop show (truth in lending here, I love cop shows), you know about parole. There is always someone on the show out on parole. Parole, used in 34 states, allows convicted criminals to get out of jail before the end of their sentences.
The criteria for being offered parole vary from state to state, but it’s usually based on good behavior and efforts at rehabilitation. The idea is that the convict enters a supervised release. If they mess up, back to jail they go. However, the effectiveness of parole depends on a lot of factors – issues many advocates for its return haven’t addressed yet.
Virginia had a parole system for well over a century, but by the early 1990s, with a rising crime rate, there was a lot of anxiety that the parole system in Virginia was broken. There were reports of convicts, often violent offenders, who were released on parole, sometimes after serving only a fraction of their sentence, returning to society only to commit more crimes. Something was definitely broken.
Also, and this is hard to ignore, the aversion to parole – abolishing it rather than reforming it – had a lot to do with race. Many of the anecdotal references to the breakdown in the parole system, particularly those in political ads of the early 1990s, focused on African-American offenders.
In 1993, Republican George Allen, sensing the tenor of the times, ran for governor on a platform to abolish parole and won handily. The legislature was controlled by Democrats, but they also sensed the mood of the public, and parole was eliminated in 1995. The question now is, while it felt good at the time, was abolishing parole altogether, with no exceptions or qualifications, all that good an idea? Possibly not.
Maybe it’s time for a new, hybrid system, focused on rehabilitation, to take its place. Not just a get-out-of-jail-early program, but a real corrections program. Remember, it’s called “the Department of Corrections.” What’s more, keeping a person in jail is far more expensive, many times over, than supervising a taxpaying, paroled inmate.
That last one, however, is often a tough sell. No elected official wants to be perceived as soft on crime. It’s far easier to focus on the violent offenders than the ones who might still be salvageable. Besides, no one can tell for sure who can be rehabilitated and who can’t. So much depends on the individual. Also, it depends on what crimes they committed – no violent offenders and no sex offenders, thank you very much.
However, the prison system found parole helpful in motivating convicts in their rehabilitation efforts, and prison officials found the prospect of parole particularly efficient in managing discipline.
This isn’t the first time bringing back parole has been discussed. In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (now running for the office again) formed a commission to review the prospects of a new parole system. It didn’t get far.
Now, the Democrats, generally more open to bringing back parole, control the legislature. The question is, just what kind of parole system do they want? Do we even want to call it parole this time around? The old system was dysfunctional. Eligibility was foggy at best, while the process for preparing an inmate for release didn’t seem to conform to any consistent criteria. Finally, parole officers were overworked, and programs to help inmates pursue productive lives were few.
We can do better, but a wholesale return to parole, without a clear statement of its purpose and process, isn’t the answer. We need to think this out. That in fact is what appears to be happening, as a state Senate committee voted late last week to send the legislation to the Virginia State Crime Commission for study, ending the bill’s chances of passing this year.
Such a study, one that answers some of these tricky questions and gives legislators the feeling that what they’re voting on is an improvement, sounds like a far more desirable course.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.