Friday, April 11, 2014

The New Retirement Plan: A Look at Geriatric Release in Virginia

By Sarah Mostyn

Criminal Justice Degree Hub
When asked about the current system of geriatric release in Virginia, Carla Peterson, Director of Virginia CURE, states that the situation is grim. As noted in JPI’s latest report, Billion Dollar Divide, the elderly population presents unique challenges to the criminal justice system. Healthcare costs for this population are consistently higher than their younger cohorts, straining already limited resources.

Many of the troubles with geriatric release begin with the parole board. Compared to other states, Virginia has an incredibly low parole rate. When denied parole, many individuals do not know the exact reasoning behind the decision. Typically, generic statements such as “serious nature of the crime” are given instead of individualized responses. For the months of January to November 2013, the overall parole rate was 2.1 percent, an extremely low rate.

The elderly population in prisons is disproportionately affected by the low parole rate. Prior to the abolition of parole in 1994, many individuals were given long, harsh sentences with the expectation that they would be able to get out early on parole. While this population remains eligible for parole, the proportion that is released by the parole board is incredibly low.

Individuals with the same or similar crimes sentenced after the abolition of parole were not given sentences as long as the Old Law inmates. As it was known they would be serving the full prison term, sentences were not as strict. Therefore, individuals sentenced after the 1994 laws are leaving prisons earlier than those sentenced before the new laws were enacted. Such a discrepancy resulted in Virginia CURE, amongst others, bringing a class action lawsuit, against the parole board in 2010 on behalf of eleven individuals serving time in prison.

According to Virginia state law, an individual must be at least 60 years of age to be qualified for geriatric release. If under the age of 64, statute requires that the individual under consideration serve at least 10 years of his or her sentence. If above the age of 65, at least five years of the individual’s total sentence must be completed prior to consideration. In examining the period of May 2013 to November 2013, 79 geriatric release applications were under consideration and only five were granted – a rate of 6.3 percent. Such a low release rate demonstrates the lack of trust the parole board has in Virginia Department of Correction’s rehabilitation programs and emphasizes the retributive component of the criminal justice system.

In attempting to correct the issues with the parole board and geriatric release, Virginia CURE has supported and helped draft legislative reforms. Many of their attempts, however, have been impeded by legislative roadblocks. To highlight these issues, Peterson points to a specific case, a bill sponsored by Gov. Bill McDonnell and former Delegate Beverly Sherwood (R – 29) that would have mandated that anyone in prison over the age of 60 be automatically considered for geriatric release in place of the current procedure that mandates they apply each year. Many key individuals from the Virginia Parole Board and the Department of Corrections testified in favor of this bill. Ultimately, however, the bill failed to pass and was tabled in Subcommittee #2 of the Militia, Police, and Public Safety Committee. Peterson contends that the individuals that tabled the bill did so out of the dominating thought within the Committee that punishment takes precedence over any other aspect of corrections, as evidenced by a history of tabling progressive legislation.

VA CURE has also been tracking more recent legislation. Of the three recent attempts at reforming the parole system, all three failed while the one bill that restricted release even further was passed.
  • HB 951: If passed, this bill would have mandated the release of individuals whose time served exceeded the midpoint of the most recent discretionary sentencing guidelines of the same or similar offense unless the Parole Board felt that there was a substantial risk to the community if the individual were released. If that is the case, the Parole Board must then issue a reasoned and thorough explanation for the denial of release. By a voice vote, this bill was deemed to be continued to 2015 by the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety;
  • SB661: If passed, this bill would have allowed non-violent offenders whose crime was committed on or after January 1, 1995 and who have served 50 percent of their sentence a parole hearing. If the individual had a second non-violent felony, the required time served increased to 75 percent. The bill was stricken upon request of Patron in Rehabilitation and Social Services;
  • SB561: Bill mandated that a prisoner convicted of a felony offense when subjected to a protective order against the individual who held the protective order is ineligible of conditional release. Bill was passed, signed by the governor, and made effective on July 1, 2012.
Overall, geriatric release remains an underutilized aspect of the Virginia criminal justice system – one that could help the state save financial resources. Many of the individuals eligible for geriatric release represent a lower threat of recidivism. Evidence shows that age is one of the greatest predictors of crime and as individuals grow older, they are less likely to commit offenses. Geriatric release enables older individuals, 60 years of age and above, to return to society and alleviates the financial and population burden on the criminal justice system. 

Sarah is an intern for JPI.

1 comment:

  1. Typically, generic statements such as “serious nature of the crime” are given instead of individualized responses. For the months of January to November 2013, the overall parole rate was 2.1 percent, an extremely low rate. know more