Virginia Democrats made a critical error this month by playing partisan games and voting down four qualified candidates nominated to the Virginia Parole Board. In so doing, the Democrats have all but killed the critically needed overhaul of the parole system in Virginia. The momentum for bipartisan support of public scrutiny and more transparency ended suddenly as these commonwealth legislators chose to play politics with the criminal justice system.
No matter your politics, transparency in the decision-making process is the only mechanism to ensure consistency. If parole is viewed as a magical black box, controlled by a few people, with no outside insight into its standards and decision-making, then the public suffers and can conclude only that it’s an arbitrary and unfair process ripe for corruption.
In his first day in office, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed an executive order “to restore integrity and confidence” in the parole board. His goal in terminating the previous members was to shine some light on the parole board and get rid of any perceived corruption. The General Assembly took the next step when it passed Senate Bill 5 with a bipartisan majority to mandate that votes taken by the parole boardbe made public when they grant or deny parole.
Ignoring the previous bipartisan mandate of transparency, Senate Democrats blocked four of Youngkin’s extremely qualified parole board nominees. One nominee was a former Richmond police officer who survived being shot in the head; another was a Latina who advocates for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
Democrats also said no to a sheriff, as well as a female attorney and law professor. Youngkin is not allowed to reappoint the rejected nominees despite the blatant political divide.
As of March 16, the Virginia Parole Board had a backlog of 378 cases waiting to be heard, while only the chairman is in place next to four empty seats. Scores of those cases have been recommended for parole by designated parole examiners.
When you consider that more than 95 percent of all people behind bars will eventually be released, our society must look at parole as a tool with no room for politics or secrecy. As incarceration populations continue to challenge Virginia and other states across the country, it’s costing American taxpayers billions of dollars that could be better spent on reentry and training programs to help the very people who are being released into our communities.
Parole is the only remaining mechanism to address mistakes in our criminal justice system. The number of exonerated Americans averages about three a week, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, and an estimated 2 to 10 percent of all incarcerated Americans are wrongfully convicted. Parole release decisions must be based on objective factors by qualified parole boards examining forward-looking risk.
Parole is one of the most important tools to address over-incarceration, and for it to be an effective tool, it must be built on a foundation of transparency, consistency and fairness. The hallmark of fairness in the administration of justice has always been consistency.
Every state in this country needs to have parole, but the process needs transparency and clarity so that it restores confidence that our criminal justice system is open to being held accountable. The power to take away a person’s liberty is the greatest power we grant to government officials. It is where greater accountability and transparency are required, not less.