Chances for Parole Go from Bad to Worse Under Virginia’s New GOP Leadership

Governor Glenn Youngkin, who demonized parole on the campaign trail, has appointed parole board members who seem poised to curtail what were already narrow options for release in the state.

Isabela Dias,    |    May 10, 2022

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (Facebook)

The already-limited possibilities for parole in Virginia are drying up even further this year, as a new Republican administration takes office in the commonwealth.

On the campaign trail, Governor Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares stroked fears about releasing people from prison and attacked Virginia’s parole system for being too lax, even though it is among the nation’s harshest. Democrats, who still control the state Senate, blocked most of the governor’s appointees to the parole board in March, in part because they were hostile to parole; two of the new GOP appointees had appeared in a campaign ad for Youngkin warning that Democrats would be overly lenient. But the governor has since doubled down with similar nominations.

The showdown has diminished hopes for Virginia advocates who have worked to expand parole, and  who are now also fighting attempts to further narrow the path for release for people who are already eligible.

“The more that I got to dig into Virginia’s criminal justice system, the more I discovered how flawed and unjust it is,” says Paulettra James, whose advocacy efforts on behalf of her husband and son, who are both incarcerated in Virginia, led her to help start the group Sistas in Prison Reform.

When James met and fell in love with her now-husband in 2017, he was serving a 38-year sentence at a Virginia Department of Corrections facility. Almost two decades earlier, Jerry L. James, who has struggled with mental health issues and substance use, had been convicted of robbery and use of firearms. During his decades-long incarceration, James graduated as valedictorian of his G.E.D. class and pursued an associate’s degree in Biblical Studies. But, his chances of getting out before his projected release date in 2033 are slim at best. 

Like most of Virginia’s incarcerated population, James is ineligible to apply for parole and have a shot at early release. In 1995, the state abolished parole and adopted a so-called truth-in sentencing statute that mandates that people serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. (People convicted before the law passed remained eligible for parole.) Upon taking control of the state government in 2019, Democrats abolished sentences of life without parole for children, which expanded the eligibility to apply for parole to anyone convicted for a crime they committed while a minor after 20 years of incarceration. Another law made anyone convicted by jury between 1995 and 2000 eligible for parole, due to a constitutional issue with how jury trials were conducted in that period. 

While these reforms have made more people eligible for parole, the odds are still heavily stacked against incarcerated Virginians who are allowed to apply. 

The state’s five-member parole board rejects nearly all of the applications it receives, with an annual grant rate of only 5 percent in 2010—far below neighboring states. The low rate persisted under the Democratic administrations of Terry McAuliffe (who was governor between 2014 and 2017) and Ralph Northam (between 2018 and 2021). It has fallen to near nil so far in Youngkin’s administration. 

A 2021 report from Washington and Lee University called parole in Virginia a “system designed to justify the routine denial of parole, not to promote rehabilitation and successful reentry.” The authors faulted deficiencies in the decision making-process of the board, including the fact that members don’t meet in person to discuss the cases, voting electronically instead. 

In 2010, eleven prisoners serving long sentences for violent offenses who had been denied parole dozens of times filed a class action lawsuit against the board alleging a violation of their constitutional rights and demanding proper consideration of their cases, but they were unsuccessful. In most instances, the reason provided for the denial was the seriousness of the original crime. “Many individuals have gone before the parole board … and been [repeatedly] denied for the nature of their offense, but even if that person served 99 percent of their sentence, the nature of their offense is never going to change,” James told Bolts. “What you’re saying in essence is you’re never going to let that person out.”

Over the past five years, the number of people released on discretionary parole each year has remained well under 300, a drop in the bucket of a prison population of roughly 24,000. Virginia’s incarceration rate is the 16th highest in the nation. Parole in Virginia, as a report released by the Justice Policy Institute concluded, constitutes a “blocked exit.” 

Republicans nevertheless made parole grants into a campaign issue in 2021. One of Youngkin’s ads painting Democrats as soft on crime featured a Republican sheriff attacking McAuliffe, who was running to return to the governor’s mansion, over the parole board he appointed during his first term as governor. Despite parole grants of about 6 percent during most of McAuliffe’s administration, Montgomery County Sheriff Hank Partin claims in the ad that board members appointed by the former governor had only one mission:“cut them loose.” 

Miyares, who defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Herring last year, has called for a constitutional amendment abolishing parole for anyone convicted of a violent offense. During the race, he also falsely accused Herring of signing off on the release of a handful of people convicted for murder, even though the attorney general doesn’t have control over the decisions of the parole board. 

Both Miyares and Youngkin singled out the release of Vincent Martin, a 64-year-old man who had been sentenced to life in prison for killing a police officer in 1979. He was granted parole in April 2020 after spending decades behind bars without a single disciplinary infraction. Martin’s release had the support of correctional officers, who described him as “a trusted leader, peacemaker, mediator and mentor.” Nevertheless, Youngkin blamed Martin’s release on the “scandalous agenda” of a “lawless parole board.” He also seized on findings that the parole board had failed to give legally required notices of releases to victims and prosecutors when considering applications, and that it had proceeded without recommendations from local parole officers. 

“Republicans are trying to use and exploit that issue for political gain, but what they’re not telling you is that most people are just summarily denied, and in order to get parole, you have to basically be a saint while in prison,” said Brad Haywood, a public defender and executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, which advocates for criminal justice reform. “Almost everybody who’s coming up for parole is 50 years of age or older and poses almost no risk to community safety.” 

After beating McAuliffe in November, Yougkin immediately fired the entire parole board and installed five new members. Haywood says some of these appointees were “handpicked” to deny parole across the board, and other advocates felt the same. In fact, at least two of Youngkin’s appointments had starred in his campaign ads to promise the new governor would be stricter on parole than his opponent.

One was Partin, the Montgomery sheriff. The other was Cheryl Nici-O’Connell, a former Richmond police officer who was shot in the head while working in uniform in 1984. A vocal advocate against parole, Nici talks about wanting to keep the person who shot her behind bars in an ad she recorded for Youngkin last year. “I’m terrified because McAuliffe puts politics over the safety of Virginians and victims’ rights,” Nici said in the ad. (Virginia’s parole board twice denied the parole application of the man who shot Nici during McAuliffe’s first term as governor.) 

Youngkin’s appointments triggered a standoff with Democrats. In March, the slim Democratic majority in the Senate rejected all but one of his five nominations to the board; only Chadwick Dotson, the chair of the board, remained. The move immediately removed the four appointees whose confirmation was denied, including Nici and Partin. (Youngkin has since appointed Nici as policy advisor in the Department of Corrections.) Democrats said the rejection was retribution for an earlier move by House Republicans to remove Northam’s appointees from several boards. “That was an important violation of decorum and tradition that motivated members to give Youngkin’s more scrutiny than they normally would get,” Senator Scott Surovell told Bolts over the phone. 

But Surovell says he also took issue with some of the appointees’ views on incarceration. “It was clear they were anti-parole activists and weren’t going to approach the job with an open mindset,” he said, naming Nici and Partin. 

Dotson, who is a former prosecutor and judge, told Bolts that in rejecting his former colleagues, Democrats chose to “play partisan games.” But he also acknowledges that board members’ priors on sentencing and prison shape how they decide applications. “Of course all of our beliefs in criminal justice are going to play into our votes,” he said. “It can’t be completely divorced from politics, it just can’t.” 

In the few weeks in which Youngkin’s initial board was in place, it denied all 177 parole requests it considered, according to the Richmond-Times Dispatch.  

The governor responded to Democrats’ vote by appointing a new set of board members, who joined the board in an interim capacity in early April. Once again, his slate is made up heavily of people with backgrounds in prosecution and law enforcement. Michelle Dermyer, the widow of a state police trooper killed in the line of duty, has publicly opposed eliminating the death penalty and helped push legislation setting a minimum sentence of life in prison for people convicted of capital murder of a law enforcement officer. 

Surovell told Bolts the new members appeared to have a similar orientation to the previous slate, but he did not indicate whether Democrats intended to block the appointments again. 

Senate Democrats are not likely to take up the appointments until their next regular session, which is in  2023. That would leave Youngkin’s appointees on the board until at least then.

James also expresses skepticism towards the latest picks. “I don’t see that even being remotely possible for them to not be personally biased towards someone particularly if that person comes before them having committed a crime against a fellow police officer or law enforcement,” she said.

Despite these clashes over the parole board, very large bipartisan majorities of Virginia’s legislature agreed earlier this year to adopt a bill, which Youngkin signed into law, that requires more transparency in the board’s proceedings. Its decisions will need to be more thoroughly part of public records. “Previous boards have kind of operated in the shadows and nobody really knew what they were doing a lot of the time,” Dotson told Bolts. “It doesn’t give me any heartburn to think that people should know what my decisions are on this parole board. Whether it will have an impact on how people vote I can’t say that I know the answer to that.” 

But proponents of criminal justice reform warn that this could serve to open board members to the sort of backlash Youngkin unleashed in his ads last fall. 

Surovell, who voted against the bill, said that making board members’ votes public could have the effect of chilling their ability to make decisions without fear of repercussion. Haywood agrees. “I don’t think individual parole votes should be public,” he told Bolts. “All that will do is make it less likely a parole board member will vote to grant parole, due to fear of retribution.”

Most other efforts to change the process faltered in the past legislative session, which ended in March, though they did highlight  competing views of the future of parole in Virginia. The GOP-run House passed a bill that would have made parole grants even more unlikely than they are now, though the Democratic Senate did not take up the bill. Mirayes’s call for a constitutional amendment that would further restrict parole also did not move forward.

Meanwhile, some reform-minded Democrats reintroduced a bill that would repeal the 1995 statute that abolished parole, but the legislation stalled in the Senate. Advocates for sentencing reform also championed a bill known as Second Look, which would have allowed incarcerated people to petition a court for resentencing after ten to 15 years in prison, depending on the circumstances; the bill had bipartisan support, but it recently died in a House subcommittee. 

“I thought we were getting closer to repealing the abolition of parole but now it seems we’re going in the other way, a different direction than the rest of the country,” David Bruck, a professor of law at Washington and Lee University and co-author of the “Parole in Virginia 2021” report, told Bolts.

Surovell is also not optimistic about expanding parole. The current political environment that will make “change difficult for the next two or three years,” he says. 

Advocates in Virginia are worried that this will leave thousands of people without recourse for years to come. “People who are going to prison now, the only method of relief they have other than serving 85 percent of their time is seeking relief from the governor,” says Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. Weneta received a pardon from Northam in 2020 after serving 16 years in prison for embezzling $60,000 from his employer, and he has championed reforms ever since.

Jerry L. James was denied clemency by Northam’s office in late 2021. His wife Paulettra James, alongside her Sistas in Reform organization, was one of the chief proponents of the Second Look bill this year. It would have applied to Jerry and given him a chance at an earlier release. 

“We need to find better ways of dealing with the problem and not just think that we can lock them up and throw away the keys and forget that they are there,” Paulettra James said.