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In Depth: Virginia's Parole System Under the Microscope Part 1

Posted: Updated: Jan 10, 2018 06:48 PM
RICHMOND, Va. (WVIR) -

NBC29 is putting Virginia’s parole system under the microscope.  In a three-part series we will show you the impacts a change to the criminal justice system two decades ago has had on the central Virginia community today. 

Our series explores how crime victims and their advocates say Virginia’s current system ensures them justice, former inmates say the system encourages a cycle of crime for many offenders, and corrections leaders say Virginia’s prisons and jails are bursting at the seams.

The Truth in Sentencing Act was put in place in 1995 under then-Governor George Allen (R) in an effort to take a tougher stance on violent crime.

“What we want to do is double the time that violent felons are serving in prison,” Allen stated. “The parole system that we have in Virginia is a fraudulent system in that when a judge or a jury sentences someone to 10 years or 12 years, they assume they're gonna serve that time and they end up serving just a fraction of their sentence.” 

The Truth in Sentencing Act aimed to close the gap between the sentence a person received in court and how much time they actually served behind bars. But, it came with unintended consequences that have transformed the criminal justice system in the commonwealth.

After the act was passed, inmates could no longer get earned sentence credit - time given through complying with Department of Corrections (DOC) policies and procedures - and only a maximum of 4.5 days could be earned for every 30 served.  Additionally, inmates are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.

Former inmate Thomas 'Zulu' Jackson says the current system only encourages a cycle of crime for many offenders: “A lot of stabbings, a lot of robberies, a lot of wine making, lot of drug smuggling inside of the prison, a lot of drug dealing...you name it, it’s happening.”

Jackson grew up in Charlottesville. He's spent 31 years of his life in and out of the system for drug-related offenses. 

"They allowed us, during those times in the early years, you know, to basically police ourselves.  And they dealt with any violations from that, you know. They gave you enough rope to hang yourself," he stated.

But after parole went away, he says the inside looked a lot different. 

"It was all these 'no parole guys' there, you know, '85 percenters.' And these 85 percenters had the attitude of ‘hey, OK, no matter how I act, and what little bit of good time they give me, it’s not going to change my sentence that much.’ And they were really out of control,” he said. 

Corrections leaders say the Truth in Sentencing Act has led to issues at the local level. “It’s really increased crowding, especially at local jails,” said Colonel Martin Kumer, the superintendent of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail.

The Justice Policy Institute reports local jails in Virginia operate at nearly 150 percent capacity at times, while the state prisons operate around 96 percent capacity. In 1980, Virginia had about 9,000 prisoners. By 2000, just 5 years after parole was abolished, the prison population more than tripled. Today, Virginia’s prison count is sitting at 30,000, which is near capacity, and local jails are being used to hold state inmates. 

Colonel Kumer says the DOC is moving their overcrowded prison inmates to local communities and overcrowding the jails. “When the DOC gets full you can't send them to DOC anymore so local jails get backed up,” he stated. “It’s really impacted us, more so, I would think, than even the Department of Corrections.”

Jackson and Kumer both agree that punishment has little effect on inmate behavior.

 “These guys always don't respond well to sticks. People have used the punishment end all their lives, that's pretty much what they know,” Colonel Kumer said.

“They say prison is rehabilitation. They say prison is a sentence of punishment for a crime committed. The structural awareness when you get in there is that prison, you know, is no different from where you came from. It makes no changes whatsoever in your life, you know, if you opt into the system,” Jackson said.

While former inmates and jail leaders say the Truth in Sentencing Act is hurting the corrections system, others believe it is needed. Coming up Thursday in part two of our series on NBC29 News at 6, we'll meet advocates, including a crime witness, who say the act is making sure victims get justice.

Continue to Part 2 of Virginia's Parole System Under the Microscope