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In Depth: Virginia's Parole System Under the Microscope - Part 2

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Republican Delegate Rob Bell Republican Delegate Rob Bell
Victim Witness Advocate Laurie Crawford Victim Witness Advocate Laurie Crawford
Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail Superintendent Martin Kumer Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail Superintendent Martin Kumer

NBC29 is putting Virginia’s parole system under the microscope, looking at the past 20 years of the Truth in Sentencing Act. In our three-part series we will show you the impacts a change to the criminal justice system two decades ago has on you, the viewers.

Part one took you through how truth in sentencing has lead to overcrowded jails and a cycle of violence for offenders. This second installment details how the Truth in Sentencing Act has provided a sense of justice to crime victims and witnesses.

NBC29's Madison Carter introduces us to advocates who say truth in sentencing needs to stay. We spoke with a woman who testified witnessing her cousin's murder and we heard from a local delegate who is urging lawmakers to not go back on the measure - even in light of some of its unintended consequences.

Before the Truth in Sentencing Act was enacted in 1995, many violent criminals would serve less than half the sentence the jury handed down. A person convicted of first-degree murder would be behind bars for about 10 years of a 35-year sentence, while a rapist would serve around four years of a 9-year sentence.

Corrections experts say the law, which essentially abolished parole in Virginia, is now filling jail and prison facilities to the max. They want to see a change, but supporters of the law say it protects victims.

Republican Delegate Rob Bell is adamant Virginia’s current system under the Truth in Sentencing Act needs to be kept in place.

“It is very easy for someone who's not going to be the victim of that crime to say, 'I think it's OK for someone else to have to pay that cost.' but the impact on crime victims is routinely understated by people that propose lower sentences,” Bell stated.

For some victims like Laurie Crawford, now a victim witness advocate, there is no dollar amount to be put on putting offenders behind bars and keeping them there.

“Put it this way. I don’t think the person who killed my cousin, or any other violent offenders like that, deserve to breathe the same air that I do,” she said.

In December 1989, 16-year-old Crawford, her cousin Jill West, and two other friends were in a car on their way home from a party.

“All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we saw someone coming up to the driver's side window of the car, and just shot into the driver side window,” Crawford said.

In the road rage incident, her cousin was murdered in the backseat by a bullet that missed the driver of the car, its intended target.

The shooter was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Because truth in sentencing wasn't in place yet, Crawford had to relive the worst day of her life once a year, testifying at his parole hearings.

“The offender...he never felt any remorse for what he did - to the day he was released. And that was what was in his files, it was what the parole board knew, and so they still needed me to come up there and say ‘keep him in,’” she said.

Until, she says, her words didn't matter to the parole board anymore.   “He got sentenced to 15 years and he was up for parole after three and he was released - mandatorily released - after eight,” Crawford said.

“A 19-year-old…in college at UVA…having to take trips up to Atmore Drive in Richmond and relive this experience in order to just keep him in that additional 5 years,” Crawford said.

Even advocates of truth in sentencing say it’s a flawed system that doesn't make distinctions between violent and non-violent crime.

“I really do make a distinction between violent and non-violent offenders. And - I’m not saying that there aren't - there are definite problems with the fact that there are people who have a drug offense who serve way more time than someone who killed someone and that's, you know, a real problem,” Crawford said.

Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail Superintendent Martin Kumer says it's a complicated problem: “I know some people say you can't put a cost on a victim, or on a crime, but taxpayers can if you tell them the real cost of what it would be to eliminate recidivism. We're not willing to pay for it. I don't think there's enough money to pay for it.”

That brings us to the impact Truth in Sentencing legislation is having on you - the taxpayer. Friday night on NBC29 HD News at 6, we'll break down the numbers and find out what Virginia’s next governor intends to do with the system in our final installment of In Depth: Virginia's Parole System Under the Microscope.