Virginia Senate Approves Bill That Would Release Many Convicts Early–Mostly Violent Criminals

Hans Bader | February 6, 2023 | 3:30pm EST
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(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Virginia Senate has voted 24 to 15 to approve SB 842, the so-called "second look" bill. If it becomes law, inmates who have been in prison for 15 years or more could ask to be released, or ask for a reduction in their sentence. Originally, the bill applied to inmates of all types, but it was amended in the Senate Finance Committee to exclude first-degree murderers. Inmates released under second-look legislation tend to be murderers (such as second-degree and first-degree murderers), although Oregon's second look law excludes a few "aggravated" murders.

In 2022, the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate passed an earlier version of the second look bill by a 25 to 15 vote, but it then died in a subcommittee of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. That earlier bill was broader than this year's bill in one way (it did not exclude even first-degree murderers such as serial killers) but narrower in another respect (it required inmates to meet specified "behavioral standards" in prison to be released, which is not true of SB 842).

This bill faces an uncertain future in the House of Delegates. On the one hand, the bill is supported by many well-funded progressive interest groups with multi-million dollar budgets, such as the ACLU, and supporters of the bill have massively out-lobbied opponents of the bill. On the other hand, it is opposed by the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys, which most House Republicans pay attention to. And most Republicans already oppose the bill.

Polls show voters tend to support second chances for nonviolent inmates. But the inmates who have been in prison long enough to petition for release under a second look law tend to be violent criminals. When citizens learn that, or read the fine print of second-look legislation, they grow more skeptical of giving all inmates a chance for release. 

Support for SB 842 is based on fallacies about what it will do. Some support it because they mistakenly think inmates released under it will virtually never return to a life of crime, or because they view it as a way of giving clemency to the rare, exemplary inmate who poses no risk to society and thus deserves a pardon. A senator from southwest Virginia supports it because he views it as a non-political expansion of the pardon process used by governors of Virginia.

But it is nothing at all like a gubernatorial pardon process. SB 842 is modeled on second-look legislation that released most inmates who sought to get out of prison, even when those inmates were anything but exemplary, and it was questionable whether they were fit to return to society. In Washington, DC, 82% of inmates seeking release have been released under its recently-enacted second look law. As the Washington Post reported, "So far, D.C. judges have ordered the release of 135 people under the law....Twenty-nine requests were denied, according to the data. Of those released, the majority had been convicted of murder." The Post was discussing this in a news story about a rapist who is seeking release even though he raped three women and forced the victims to dig their own graves.

A progressive Virginia group falsely claims the Virginia second look bill would require inmates to have "participated in rehabilitative programs to be released," but that is not true of the current version of the bill, whose text is found at this link.

Over 1,000 inmates could be released if Virginia's second look bill passes. SB 842's fiscal-impact statement says that "there were 4,865" Virginia prison "inmates who meet the length of stay criteria set forth in this bill and would be eligible to file a petition" for release. Shawn Weneta, a lobbyist who helped draft Virginia’s second-look legislation, predicted in 2022 that even under a low-ball estimate, the bill would empty “2 more Virginia prisons.” Virginia's second look bill would release far more offenders than DC's law, because DC has only 8% of Virginia's population, and its second look law only applies to offenders who committed their crime before age 25, unlike the Virginia bill, which applies to offenders of all ages.

Advocates of second look laws aren't concerned about the risk of releasing offenders who have served at least 15 years, because they erroneously assume such inmates have aged "out of criminal behavior over time,” with some falsely claiming that inmates can safely be released by their late 30s. For example, one group that testified for Virginia's second look bill mistakenly claimed that keeping people in prison who were sent there “a decade ago” does “very little, if anything, to maintain safety.” But as the U.S. Sentencing Commission's report shows, even inmates over age 60 reoffend more than a quarter of the time. There are real-world examples of offenders killing again even after decades in prison, although criminal-justice expert Michael Rushford says that longer sentences make inmates less likely to reoffend when they finally are released.

Incarcerating offenders substantially reduces the crime rate. When El Salvador dramatically increased its incarceration rate, its murder rate fell to a tiny fraction of what it had previously been.


Courtesy of Liberty Unyielding ( full version or article published here).


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