HAMPTON — Gov. Glenn Youngkin declined this week to sign a bill making wholesale changes to the Virginia Parole Board — seeking to add a requirement that prosecutors be notified in advance about an inmate’s potential release.
Youngkin didn’t have a problem with the legislation’s main thrust — scrapping the board’s long-standing exemption under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and requiring the five-member board to make its parole decisions in public.
But rather than signing the measure into law by Monday night’s deadline, Youngkin asked for a tweak that would require the board to ask prosecutors for their thoughts early in the process.
Youngkin’s proposal said that as part of an investigation into an inmate’s release, the top prosecutor “in each jurisdiction in which an offense occurred” must be notified in advance.
That prosecutor “may submit input to the Board regarding the impact the release of the inmate will have on the jurisdiction.” Whatever the prosecutor submits must remain in the inmate’s parole board file for any future board hearings.
Youngkin’s proposal likewise called for the local victim/witness advocate’s office — typically part of the prosecutor’s office but sometimes part of sheriff’s offices — be given a chance to weigh in.
The General Assembly will consider Youngkin’s recommendations — on this bill and many others — at a special session April 12.
Under existing state law, inmates can’t be freed unless a thorough investigation has been made into that prisoner’s history and conduct — and whether his release is compatible “with the interests of society.”
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The law requires that crime victims are notified before the parole board votes, with the victims and families allowed to submit evidence about the impact that the release of the prisoner will have on them.
“The Board shall endeavor diligently to contact the victim prior to making any decision to release any inmate on discretionary parole,” current law says.
But the law is less stringent for keeping prosecutors informed.
Prosecutors must be notified in advance of the board’s decisions only “if additional victim research is necessary” — in other words, if the board needs help finding a victim.
After the board votes to free a prisoner, it must notify local prosecutors of that decision at least 21 business days prior to such inmate’s release. (The Department of Corrections must separately provide notice to police and sheriff’s offices).
The recent Parole Board legislation — including the push to force the agency to operate in public after years of secrecy — comes on the heels of a scandal stemming from the release of more than 130 inmates at the start of the pandemic in March and April of 2020.
The board under former Chairwoman Adrianne L. Bennett was criticized for releasing so many violent criminals — including a man sentenced to life in the 1979 killing of a popular Richmond police officer.
But the board was further criticized for numerous missteps along the way, including failing to keep many victims’ families properly informed of releases in advance, and often not properly telling prosecutors about the releases after the votes.
Following “the previous administration’s parole board scandals,” the governor “has been committed to implementing … changes that provide increased information to victims and families and increase transparency,” Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s press spokeswoman, said in a text message Wednesday.
Youngkin, she said, wants to ensure that future parole boards will uphold the same standards as recommended by the current parole board and the State Office of Inspector General.
Current Parole Board Chairman Chadwick Dotson said in a January report to Youngkin that the board is now keeping victims notified early in cases in which parole appears even a remote possibility.
“This is also the moment when we reach out to Commonwealth’s Attorneys, seeking their input,” the report said. “Based on feedback we are receiving, (prosecutors) and Victim-Witness Coordinators feel like they’re ‘in the loop’ on (Parole Board) decisions.”
Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth’s Attorney Nate Green said he’s getting far more notices from the Parole Board now.
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“We’re seeing pretty dramatic change in the past couple of years,” Green said. “In the past, we weren’t consistently getting notice that individuals were getting ready to be paroled. I very rarely ever saw anything from the Parole Board saying ‘Hey, we are considering this individual for parole, would you like to provide any comment?’”
“If we got a notification, it would be after the decision had been made, and the decision really couldn’t be changed.”
He said prosecutors around the state complained to Dotson, and he promised to address the issue.
“I would say that he has addressed it,” Green said. “Over the last couple of years, we have seen a much stronger effort in making sure that the prosecutors are given an opportunity to provide input.”
Putting that policy change into law, Green said, “is a good idea.”
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who sponsored the Parole Board legislation in the Senate, couldn’t be reached for comment on Youngkin’s recommendation.
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, firstname.lastname@example.org