RICHMOND – Starting this summer, the state’s Parole Board will have to justify why it’s denied a prisoner’s petition for release under a bill that passed the General Assembly this week.
HB2103 requires the board to conduct a “timely and thorough review” of parole petitions and, if denied, to provide specific reasons.
Virginia did away with parole in 1995, but several thousand prison inmates – about 4,500 in 2012 – sentenced prior to that remain eligible for early release each year.
Few of those appeals are successful. The Parole Board grants early release to about two to three percent of eligible prisoners, citing reasons such as the nature of their offenses or that they would pose a threat to public safety.
That’s not good enough, said the bill’s patron, Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax County. There are prisoners who committed their crimes 35-40 years ago and have been before the Parole Board 10-20 times, being denied each time because of the nature of their crime.
“There are people who have been eligible for parole many times and only receive a very short answer with nothing to help them understand what to do in the future to be better prepared,” Sickles told the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee, which unanimously approved the bill.
“These people don’t know what they could possibly try,” said Sen. Linda “Toddy” Puller, D-Fairfax County. “It just drives me crazy.”
The board also considers other factors, such as if the person has participated in any treatment programs while locked up.
Obtaining reasons for parole denial has been a priority for criminal justice reform groups, such as Virginia CURE.
The change could provide hope to prisoners such as Shawn Novak, who’s serving a life sentence for slaughtering two little boys in Virginia Beach in March 1991. The Parole Board denied his release last year, and postponed reconsideration until 2015.
He’s 35 and has been incarcerated nearly 22 years.
The families of his victims – 7-year-old Scot Weaver and 9-year-old Daniel Geier – would like it to stay that way. They campaigned for the Parole Board to deny his release.
“Novak should be left in prison to suffer and think about what he did, every day of his life,” Scot’s mother, Tami Weaver, wrote in a letter to the board.
The bill unanimously passed both General Assembly chambers, but still requires sign off from the governor.
-Kathy Adams, The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot