The Virginia parole board is changing how it interprets the state’s three-strikes law in a way that could free hundreds of inmates – many of them nonviolent – who are serving prison terms significantly longer than the typical first-degree murderer, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reports. The announcement was made after the Virginian-Pilot reported that a high percentage of three-strikes inmates have served two to three decades in prison for crimes in which no one was injured. The majority of such inmates interviewed had never been to prison before and committed their crimes in a single spree. Adrianne Bennett, the parole board’s chairwoman, said the board is making two major changes to its interpretation of the 1982 three-strikes law under which the inmates were deemed ineligible for parole.
The most significant change is that the parole board will only uphold offenders’ classification as three-strikers if their offenses were separated by time “at liberty.” In other words, only offenders who were in and out of prison repeatedly would continue to be ineligible for parole. Inmates who committed their crimes in the same stretch of time – and who had never been to prison before – could be heading home soon. The law states that offenders have to be convicted of three “separate” offenses of murder, rape or robbery. The Virginian-Pilot interviewed more than 40 three-strikes inmates. Most of them committed robberies in the same brief stretch in their late teens or 20s. With the parole board’s shift, all of those inmates would become eligible for parole and could potentially be released in the coming months. The parole board’s shift could affect more than 200 inmates who have been in the Virginia prison system for decades. There are about 260 three-strikers behind bars. The vast majority of them likely were not “at liberty” between their crimes.