Virginia’s House advanced HB33 with a 52 to 45 vote on Friday that supports Gov. Ralph Northam’s criminal justice reform initiative. This particular bill addresses a long debated issue of parole in Virginia. Parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995, but no jury was informed of this change when deliberating sentences until 2000 after the Fisbhack v. Commonwealth case.
“That means it’s possible that juries were imposing harsh sentences during those five years under the incorrect belief that the individuals would be eligible for parole and would serve only part of their sentence. Offering those people a pathway to parole will make our system more equitable,” said Gov. Northam.
During the floor debate prior to the vote, House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring (D-46th) said the bill was about correcting this mistake and improving the integrity of a fragile judicial system. The opposing members argued that House Bill 33 would release violent criminals and be an injustice to all of their victims and families.
House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-15th) zealously argued that, “This is not the direction we need to go in, that Virginia has the fourth lowest violent crime rate, the second lowest crime rate in the country, the lowest criminal recidivism rate, and does not make Virginians safer.”
Herring responded to the opposition with a statement acknowledging that the cases “mentioned are horrific, terrifying, and my sympathy goes to the victims and the families, but we have to correct a wrong here and our judicial system failed.”
Hearing notes state that Northam’s administration estimated they believed 311 inmates would qualify under this bill. The final bill did have an amendment that excludes those who committed sex crimes against minors. During his floor speech, Del. Bell said 280 violent and six non-violent offenders would be eligible.
Virginia Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran said that this was not about releasing anyone intentionally, it was simply about giving the parole board the discretion to even consider parole.