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Second chances deserve second look

By Delegate Clinton Jenkins

Racial disparity lies deeply rooted in our criminal justice system, afflicting adult and juvenile sentencing. The 2020 legislative session served as a historic opportunity to overturn some of the darkest chapters of our Commonwealth’s history. As a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, I proudly supported House Bill 35, which grants eligibility for parole after 20 years to those who were minors when sentenced to life in prison.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole violated the U.S. Constitution under the Eighth Amendment as it is cruel and unusual punishment. As Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”

HB 35 brings a more constitutional and humane approach to juvenile justice, which is necessary to improve the criminal justice system, but we must further address the racial disparities in arrest, prosecution and sentencing in future legislative sessions.

Recent news reports criticized some Virginia Parole Board decisions, including parole for certain offenders sentenced to life without parole during their teenage years. This coverage mischaracterizes the parole system and overlooks the injustice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole.

As HB 35 does not go into effect until July 1, the only inmates sentenced as juveniles who are currently eligible for parole are those with pre-1995 convictions. This restriction comes from a 1994 law signed by former Gov. George Allen abolishing parole, which The Washington Post called a “throw-away-the-key proposal.”

The Parole Board considers each eligible case in depth, basing its decisions on numerous factors, including: risk to public safety; circumstances of the crime; history and conduct while in prison; input from victims and concerned citizens; and any medical conditions. Parole is granted in only a small percentage of cases, and recidivism among discretionary parolees in Virginia (10%) is significantly lower than the overall rate of 23.1 percent for all former offenders in the Commonwealth.

Let’s not politicize a parole process that is stringent and fair, which includes input from victims and concerned citizens, contrary to what anti-reform advocates argue. Granting parole involves much more than opening gates and allowing prisoners out without thought or supervision. The review process includes identifying if the person has support outside of prison, aside from the parole officer assigned to them. The Parole Board also evaluates the potential parolee’s plan for a productive reintegration into society, including their opportunities for work. Once approved, the Parole Board develops a tailored parole plan. While the law requires the Parole Board to notify victims and their families of the release, it does not require the notification of Commonwealth’s Attorneys.

Instances where Virginia courts callously and needlessly sentenced children to life without parole show the broken nature of our criminal justice system and the urgent need to dismantle this practice. Travion Blount’s case serves as a prime example: a court-imposed six life sentences plus 118 years for a house party robbery when he was 15 years old, despite no shots fired or serious injuries. The two 18-year-old accomplices received significantly lesser sentences of 10 and 13 years, since they pleaded guilty.

In this nation, we value forgiveness, rehabilitation and second chances. Our Parole Board offers the Commonwealth a way to demonstrate these values, working diligently to screen and identify incarcerated offenders most likely to live as productive members of society outside of prison. Its decisions come after thorough consideration and planning, reflected in low recidivism rates among parolees. We could all learn from this level of deliberation and recognize that those who have worked to rehabilitate themselves deserve a fair second chance.

Delegate Clinton Jenkins represents the 76th District, which includes part of Suffolk, in the Virginia House of Delegates.