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11 inmates sue Virginia Parole Board over denials


(by Frank Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 04, 2010, Link)


Eleven state inmates, most if not all convicted murderers, filed suit against the Virginia Parole Board yesterday, challenging what they allege are rote, automatic parole denials. The class-action suit filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond contends the inmates are repeatedly rejected for parole because of the "serious nature and circumstances of the crime," wrongly prolonging their prison terms and costing an average of $24,665 per inmate a year.

Eleven state inmates, most if not all convicted murderers, filed suit against the Virginia Parole Board yesterday, challenging what they allege are rote, automatic parole denials.

The class-action suit filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond contends the inmates are repeatedly rejected for parole because of the "serious nature and circumstances of the crime," wrongly prolonging their prison terms and costing an average of $24,665 per inmate a year.

According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, at least 10 of the 11 were convicted of murder, and many were sentenced to life terms. It's unclear whether the 11th inmate, who beat a woman who later died of her injuries, was convicted of murder.

Parole ended in Virginia for crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 1995. However, people convicted of crimes committed before that date are still eligible for discretionary parole -- even if given life sentences -- under the old parole law.

According to the Virginia Institutionalized Persons Project of the Legal Aid Justice Center, roughly 6,000 Virginia inmates convicted of violent crimes remain eligible for parole. At 17.2 percent, robbery was the largest category of crime.

The group said the parole-grant rate fell from more than 40 percent before parole was abolished to 2.1 to 3.7 percent in the past seven years.

Stephen A. Northup, a Richmond lawyer assisting in the suit, said, "Virginia law requires the parole board to release those found suitable for parole and to consider a broad range of circumstances in making this determination. In violation of Virginia law and protections under the U.S. Constitution, the parole board has been making parole determinations without considering all the circumstances Virginia law requires."

The suit says the inmates with violent records given the nature-of-the-crime explanation get no guidance from the parole board about what, if anything, they must do to be granted parole or how long they must serve until their crime no longer automatically disqualifies them.

In effect, the suit alleges, the parole board has retroactively ended parole for people who are eligible for it under the law.

The Department of Corrections, the attorney general's office and Helen Fahey, chairwoman of the parole board, declined to comment.

. . .

Last year, a study by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission found that 700 parole-eligible inmates have served longer behind bars than their sentences recommended for the same crimes under the high end of the new, no-parole sentencing guidelines.

According to the Institutionalized Persons Project, those figures understate the problem. Among other things, they compare time served by parole-eligible inmates to the high end of the new sentencing guidelines, even though judges have favored the low end of the guidelines.

The sentencing commission, however, said it was not able to learn all the aggravating factors in those cases that might account for no parole.

According to their lawyers, eight of the plaintiffs are male and three female, ranging in age from 43 to 69. All have been imprisoned for more than 23 years, five of them for more than 30 years. They have been denied parole an average of 15 times.

Among them is Larry Macon, 53, convicted of murder and a weapons charge in Chesterfield County in 1978 when he was 21.

According to the Institutionalized Persons Project, all have been model inmates for many years with outstanding educational and employment records and performance evaluations and few, if any, institutional infractions.

The files of several of the plaintiffs include support for their release from prison staff members.

"Almost without exception, these denials contain only six words of explanation -- 'serious nature and circumstances of the crime' -- with no mention of any of the other factors that Virginia law requires to be considered in making parole determinations," the project says.

The inmates are asking the court to order, among other things, the adoption and use of policies and procedures by the board to ensure fair and meaningful consideration of parole for inmates convicted of violent offense.
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