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Virginia attacks crime by abolishing parole, lengthening prison sentences

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Populist politics

Evidently, it is also good populist politics. Mr. Allen, a former congressman and the son of the late Washington Redskins coach, rolled to a landslide victory in the race for governor last year on a conservative platform built around his pledge to toughen prison sentences and eliminate parole.

One of his first acts as governor was to appoint the commission that came up with the plan. And when he called a special session of the General Assembly and introduced legislation to implement his plan, it was immediately co-sponsored by three-quarters of the legislature.

While the cost of the program raised some legislative eyebrows and caused some proposed prison sentences to be scaled back, most of the governor's program survived intact.

The idea of getting tougher on criminals resonated among Virginians alarmed by a 28 percent increase in reports of violent crime in the past five years. The plan also had the virtue of seeming to restore logic to a criminal justice system that, for many, was too forgiving.

Under Virginia's current system of awarding inmates "good time" credits and parole, the sentence handed down by a judge often has little to do with how long a convict actually spends in prison, according to the commission appointed by Mr. Allen to study parole and sentencing.

The typical first-degree murderer in Virginia is sentenced to 35 years but serves only 10. The average sentence for a rapist is 9.2 years; average time served is 4.4 years. Robbers are typically sentenced to 13.8 years, but serve only about 4.4 years.

Under Mr. Allen's plan, parole will be eliminated, penalties will be increased and no more than 15 percent of an inmate's sentence could be reduced based on good conduct. These changes will apply to those sentenced after Jan. 1. Previously, prisoners automatically shaved 300 days off for every 365 served with "good behavior."

Even before passage of the bill, Mr. Allen appointed a new, conservative parole board, which includes a rape survivor. The panel already has considerably reduced the number of convicts released early from prison. Before the new board was installed, 40 percent of the parole petitions were granted. Now, only 15 percent are approved.

But while keeping more people in prison longer has been politically popular, critics say there is no evidence that it reduces crime.

"This thing promises a simple solution to a complex problem," said Curtis M. Hairston, president of the Richmond chapter of the Old Dominion Bar Association, a black lawyers' group, which opposed the plan. "That's what gives it its appeal."

In the past decade, the prison population in Virginia has increased sharply, from 9,800 in 1984 to 13,400 in 1990 to the current 23,000. The crush has so strained the state that it has been forced to house 1,800 of its inmates in local jails.

The debate in Virginia has taken on racial overtones because a disproportionate share of the state's prison inmates -- 62 percent -- are blacks.

Black groups opposed plan

Many black organizations and elected officials fought the plan, saying that the money earmarked for prisons could be better spent on social programs intended to prevent crime.

"If you put a billion or two billion dollars on the table and sat some criminologist around it to solve the crime problem, nobody would talk about building prisons," said U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Democrat.

"But when you put some politicians around that table, you see what happens."

Mr. Scott pointed out that the money contemplated for the prison plan could go to recreation programs, public schools, Head Start programs, Job Corps centers, drug-treatment slots -- all things, he said, that are known to prevent crime.

"The governor is playing on the emotions of Virginians and the fear of crime," said the Rev. Micheal K. Williams, president of the Richmond chapter of the NAACP. "He's gone to the extreme, talking about stacking inmates up two by two. It is just not right."

But not all blacks oppose eliminating parole. Mayor Leonidas B. Young of Richmond, which is struggling with a surging homicide rate that has left the city behind only New Orleans for the ignominious title as the nation's murder capital, campaigned for the plan.

Richmond officials have said that 44 percent of the murder vTC suspects arrested in the city in the past year were parolees. And they say, it is time these criminals are locked away.

"We can try rehabilitation on some," said Robert C. Bobb, the Richmond city manager who served on the task force that drew up the no-parole plan.

"But for the most violent criminals, the prison door must be shut and never be reopened."

It is an idea that appeals to Ms. Bruce, who has become a crime victim's advocate after her daughter's murder.

"This plan will send a message," she said.

"People need to become more responsible for their actions. We have become a society that makes excuses for everything. I know that I don't want to see another family go through what my family has had to go through."

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