Virginia attacks crime by abolishing parole, lengthening prison sentences

October 02, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Correspondent

RICHMOND, Va. -- The packed hearing room fell silent as Jo Ann Bruce told a panel of legislators the grisly details of how her 22-year-old daughter was raped, sodomized and stabbed to death four years ago by a man previously convicted in two other assaults.

"You know, I touch her picture," Ms. Bruce said of her daughter, Dawn Rachelle, in a recent testimony to the Virginia General Assembly. "I just want to feel her skin one more time. But she's gone. She's really, really gone."

Ms. Bruce shook as she told her story, even though she had repeated it many times. She is among a cadre of crime victims and survivors who have traveled around Virginia to offer gut-wrenching testimony in support of Gov. George Allen's plan to attack violent crime by abolishing parole for anyone convicted of any crime.

The governor's plan will also lengthen prison sentences and require up to 23 new prisons. The plan, approved by the legislature Friday, is expected to cost as much as $1.5 billion for construction and to double prison operating expenses, to more than $1 billion a year, over the next decade.

The Allen plan is a radical version of a notion that is becoming increasingly popular nationwide and is based on a simple assumption: that putting more people in prison for longer periods will reduce crime.

In addition to Virginia, eight states and the federal prison system have abolished parole, according to Tim Matthews, director of the American Probation and Parole Association, which studies corrections issues. But nowhere but in Virginia has the abolition of parole been coupled with the lengthening of prison sentences and the imposition of severe limitations on "good time" credits for inmates, Mr. Matthews said.

Variations on tougher parole policies have been proposed and adopted in Maryland in recent years. One result: Maryland adults who are convicted of a second violent felony

must now serve at least 10 years in prison. And violent offenders must serve at least half their sentences before being eligible for parole. Previously, those prisoners were eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences.

The Republican nominee for governor, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, has proposed abolishing parole for violent criminals. The Democratic nominee, Parris N. Glendening, favors mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenders.

Others prefer prevention

Critics say the rush to tighten parole overlooks an essential fact: Tighter parole rules have not been shown to reduce crime. They also say that the huge amount of money it costs to house inmates longer could be more wisely spent on crime prevention.

"The idea of restricting or eliminating parole is tied up in the politics of getting tough on crime," Mr. Matthews said. "There is this sense that if we get tougher and we make people serve longer sentences, then somehow or another that is going to make us safer. But we don't have any evidence that that is true."

Others agree. "The whole issue has been politicized," said Gail Hughes, secretary of the Association of Paroling Authorities International. "The real benefit of increased incarceration has to be questioned because we're incarcerating more people in this country than anywhere in the world [except Russia]. But to what effect?"

But advocates of the no-parole concept say that it is a logical first step toward fixing what they see as a broken criminal justice system.

"Incarceration of violent criminals is prevention," Mr. Allen has said. "When violent criminals are behind bars, they aren't committing murders, they aren't committing rapes and they aren't committing robberies."

In passing Mr. Allen's plan Friday, the Virginia General Assembly brushed aside expert testimony and the experiences of other states that have found no correlation between imprisoning more people for longer periods and reducing crime.

With the no-parole plan, Virginia's prison population is expected to more than double in 10 years, from the current 23,000 to about 50,000.

The plan to eliminate parole while severely restricting the "good time" credits earned by inmates and to lengthen sentences for violent crimes generated vehement opposition from critics who questioned its benefits and huge cost.

"I don't know why we're taking leave of our common sense on this," said Jerrauld C. Jones, a Democratic state delegate from ,, Norfolk who heads the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, one of the few pockets of opposition to the plan in the Virginia General Assembly.

"This will so strap the future state treasury that it will prevent us from making improvements in education and human services," Mr. Jones said. "This represents the worst in bumper-sticker politics, the worst in 30-second-sound-bite politics."

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