The Virginia legislature, newly dominated by Democrats, is poised to broaden parole for the first time in a generation. The move would give thousands of prisoners convicted of violent crimes a chance to be released. Watching closely are lawmakers across the nation, including in California, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Like Virginia, those states decades ago virtually eliminated discretionary parole, granted by appointed boards on a conditional basis, during an era of surging violent crime and the imposition of progressively harsher punishments, the New York Times reports. “We thought we were fighting crime, and it didn’t work,” said David Marsden, a Democratic state senator in Virginia, who previously introduced bills to restore parole but was blocked by Republicans.
After watching the nation’s prison population grow by 500 percent since the 1980s, some lawmakers have sought to reduce prison rolls as part of a growing consensus that the criminal justice system has incarcerated too many people. Louisiana has cut its prison population to a level not seen since the 1990s. Still, analysts say recent attempts to restore parole in California, Pennsylvania and elsewhere were beaten back amid political pressure on lawmakers over concerns that someone released on parole could commit a serious violent crime. Still, the question of expanding parole in Virginia remains politically perilous. This month, Democrats shelved a bill that would have restored the possibility of parole for nearly 17,000 inmates, more than half the state’s prison population. Instead, Democrats have focused on modest efforts to restore parole to older inmates. Republican lawmakers have warned that restoring parole would make Virginia — which has the fourth lowest violent crime rate of any state — more dangerous. The Virginia Victim Assistance Network, a crime victims’ group, also opposes widening the number of people who can get parole.