Cops, Courts & Prisons

GENERAL ASSEMBLY TACKLES PRISON REFORM, BUT MUCH LEFT TO DO

Originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, printed February 17. Reproduced here in for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in this issue or download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

Staff Report

The 2020 Virginia General Assembly, in which the Democrats hold a majority of seats in both the Senate and House of Delegates, has been promoting a number of bills that may bring a measure of justice to some of the state’s 38,000 prisoners – and will likely disappoint many others.

Margaret Breslau, a co-founder of the Virginia Prison Justice Network, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying “she was accustomed to seeing prison reform bills summarily dismissed during years of Republican control in the state legislature, so she had big expectations when Democrats took over. Instead, she’s seen small steps, but not the kind of progress she hoped for, she said. ‘You don’t just need reform here and there. You need to transform an entire system,’ she said.”

One big issue is parole, which In Virginia was abolished back in 1995. We are hearing that many prisoners were under the mistaken impression that parole would be brought back, for all prisoners, as soon as the GA opened on Jan. 8.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. In a complicated process, every bill must pass both the House and Senate and then be signed by the governor. Even then, new bills won’t take effect until July 1.

There is no bill in the GA promoting parole for all prisoners. There are a few bills that would offer the possibility of parole for certain prisoners, but even those prisoners would still have to go before the Parole Board and argue their case. And they can always be turned down.

However, there is some hope for change. Several affiliates of the Virginia Prison Justice Network (VAPJN) have been following bills that deal with geriatric and juvenile parole; solitary confinement; expungement of records; and the so-called Fishback cases, in which juries were not told that parole had been abolished and so imposed long sentences under the mistaken impression that prisoners would not serve the entire sentence.

One of the best sources of information about the status of current bills in the GA is the Virginia Prison Justice Newsletter website: https://vapjn.wordpress.com/2018- bills/ The network has information about bills dealing with the following areas: Fishback, parole, sentencing, solitary confinement, grand larceny threshold, fines/costs, prisoner health/well-being, juvenile justice, prison labor and the death penalty.

Another excellent source is the Virginia Prison Justice Newsletter, published monthly by the (Blacksburg) Coalition for Justice. The newsletter is free to prisoners. To get on their mailing list, write: Coalition for Justice, PO Box 299, Blacksburg, VA 24063.

Another great source is Lillie “Ms. K” Branch Kennedy at Resource, Information, Help for the Disadvantaged & Disenfranchised, or R.I.H.D. at https://rihd.org.

We have reason to believe that there will be some real improvement in Virginia’s criminal justice and prison systems, but there will also be many disappointments and much more work to be done.

Fortunately, we have more than begun.

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