A Virginia Senate panel on Monday backed one of a few bills the General Assembly is considering that would bring more transparency and accountability to the parole board.
The proposal, from Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, would require the Virginia Parole Board to publish more information in its monthly report about prisoners upon whom it’s taking action, including why the board granted someone parole.
Obenshain’s bill is one of several that Republicans have filed following recent controversies with the parole board over the recent release of some inmates. The situations put a spotlight on how the parole board works under a shroud of secrecy. The board is largely exempt from Virginia’s public records law. The Virginia Parole Board doesn’t allow the public to attend parole hearings, it doesn’t publish votes and various files and records are sealed.
“One thing that has become apparent to me in the past few months is that more information is better,” Obenshain said.
Obenshain’s Senate Bill 5050 also would add additional layers of notification to the commonwealth’s attorney and the director of the victim witness program to improve the likelihood that victim is notified about the parole board considering the release of an inmate.
The monthly report the parole board publishes lists the name of inmates, and other information like the day a decision was made, age, sex, race, and the reason someone wasn’t granted parole. Obenshain’s bill would require that report to also include the charges the person was convicted of, the amount of time the person has served, the jurisdiction where the offenses were committed and the reason why parole was granted.
The Democratic-controlled Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee advanced the bill Monday on a bipartisan vote to the Senate floor for a full vote.
The sisters of Jeanette McClelland urged the committee to support the bill. McClelland died after being stabbed two dozen times by Montie Rissell. Rissell confessed in 1977 to murdering five women, including McClelland, in Northern Virginia. Rissell has been up for parole since the mid-1990s, but the board has denied him every time.
“The reason I have been able to live my life as fully as I have is because a serial killer that raped and murdered my sister and four other women is behind bars,” Sarah McClelland said. “How would I be able to feel safe in my community knowing that this monster who has never expressed remorse was free to roam the streets to kill again?”
The parole board is under scrutiny following a government watchdog report saying the board violated state law and its own policies in releasing Vincent Martin, who was sentenced to life for killing a Richmond police officer. The Office of the Inspector General provided the report almost entirely redacted to the media. Republican lawmakers legally obtained the report and released it to the public.
Parole Board Chair Tonya Chapman, who was not part of the decision to free Martin, sent a lengthy response to the inspector general disputing the report’s findings, saying the “conclusions are based on faulty assumptions, incorrect facts, a misunderstanding of certain procedures, and incorrect interpretations” of the state code.
The inspector general’s report and Chapman’s response only deal with the Martin case. Local media have found other instances of the parole board violating its procedures. For example, the parole board did not notify the Roanoke commonwealth’s attorney about a recent release of two men, one of whom got three life sentences plus more than a century for his role in a fatal robbery spree in the 1980s.
Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea sits on the parole board, and his mayoral office is across the street from the courthouse where the commonwealth’s attorney works. Lea spent 35 years working in the Virginia Department of Corrections in probation and parole before retiring. Lea called a Roanoke Times reporter on Thursday asking about how the conversation around the parole board was shaping in the legislature and if it seemed like the board “had allies.” He said he couldn’t speak in detail about parole matters.
The parole board consists of five people appointed by the governor who determine whether to release people from prison. Parole was abolished in Virginia at the start of 1995, but inmates convicted prior to that are still eligible if their case receives at least three votes from the board; those found guilty of first-degree murder require four votes.
Some boards in other states are more transparent. Most states allow the public to observe some or all parole board hearings, according to a review of parole boards across the country. The boards in many states also make available the material it relied upon — risk assessments, prison disciplinary reports and the like — to reach its decisions.
Parole boards have been the subject of reform across the country in recent years. Transparency has been one of those reform areas. After a former parole board member in Ohio criticized the state’s board last year for its secretive culture, the governor implemented several new reforms, including livestreaming meetings to the public and training for members.
Republicans have been eager to bring attention to the parole board as the Democratic-controlled General Assembly debates police reform.
Obenshain delivered a lengthy floor speech on Wednesday rattling off instances of when the parole board didn’t notify prosecutors, as required by law, or the victims, as the parole is supposed to try to do.
“This is crazy,” Obenshain said. “It’s like a bad DC Comics movie. We’ve got rioting in the streets of Gotham, so what do we do? We turn out the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin all at the same time.”
Meanwhile, Democrats haven’t been keen to talk about the parole board.
“It’s a big diversion,” Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said in response to Obenshain’s speech.
“My colleagues are very good at changing the narrative when the existing narrative does not fit their agenda,” Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said.
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, defended Martin’s release, saying he took advantage of education and reentry programs, quelled disturbances and didn’t have any infractions for almost his entire time behind bars.
“What do you have to do to show the world that you have improved?” Morrissey said. “You spend four decades in jail, you do everything you’re asked, you’re infraction-free, you’re the guy they call when something goes wrong. What more can we do? We can’t draw and quarter them. We can’t execute them. If you believe in redemption, if you believe redemption is good for the soul, then you give them a second chance after 40 years.”
Morrissey said he hoped any debate about the parole board would include penalties for lawmakers who release inspector general reports to the public even when the office tells them not to do so.
Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, said the parole board has refuted many of the report’s findings.
Much of what Morrissey and Marsden said drew from a document prepared by Chapman providing talking points for the Democrats, a copy of which was provided to The Roanoke Times. It lists background and conduct notes about Martin as well as responses to the report’s findings. Those responses have been detailed at more length in Chapman’s response to the inspector general.
Neither chamber has yet to schedule hearings for bills from Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, and Del. Nick Rush, R-Christiansburg, which would require the individual votes of parole board members be made public. There are also proposals from Republicans to require the parole board to contact the victim prior to any decision to release an inmate. Currently, the law requires the board to make an effort.
“We need to bring sunshine to the decisions they’re making so Virginians know,” Suetterlein has said.