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Virginia senate defeats bill to restore parole

Virginia abolished discretionary parole in 1995

Richmond (WSLS)

RICHMOND, Va. – A bill that would have restored parole in Virginia was killed Friday after lawmakers heard emotional testimony from family members of crime victims who pleaded with them to guarantee their assailants would stay locked up.

The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee voted to send the measure to the Virginia State Crime Commission for study, ending the bill’s chances of passing this year.

Virginia abolished discretionary parole in 1995 and began requiring offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The bill sponsored by Sen. John Edwards would have reinstated parole and made it retroactive so that people who were sentenced for a felony beginning on Jan. 1, 1995, would become eligible.

During a hearing Friday, several family members of murder victims described the crimes in heart-wrenching detail and urged lawmakers to vote against reinstating parole.

Debbie Songer testified through tears about the killing of her 19-year-old son, Ben Graessle, in 2012. Graessle was shot three times outside an apartment complex in Harrisonburg. Dallas Chaplin, of Staunton, was convicted in his killing and is serving a 40-year sentence.

Songer said she gave her approval to a plea bargain because Chaplin offered to plead guilty under the deal. She said she would have pushed for the trial to go forward and for Chaplin to get a life sentence if she had thought he would be given a chance at parole.

“This is so unfair - making this retroactive - it’s so unfair to the victims and to their loved ones.”

Bryan Haskins, the top prosecutor in Pittsylvania County, spoke on behalf of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, saying the group opposed the measure and the retroactivity provision in particular.

Haskins also warned that the state parole board is not funded or staffed to handle the influx of the possible thousands of inmates who would become parole-eligible if the measure passed. The board has been under fire this year from prosecutors and victims’ families who raised concerns that the board was not following its own procedures in providing notification about its decisions. Those concerns have been at least partly substantiated by investigations by the state’s government watchdog agency.

Despite the 1995 parole abolition, a limited number of incarcerated people are eligible for consideration: mainly those who committed their crimes before 1995 or are older than 60 and meet certain conditions making them eligible for geriatric release.

Several people testified in favor of the bill, saying offenders who have used their time in prison to rehabilitate themselves should be given a second chance and allowed to return to society.

They emphasized that the bill wouldn’t automatically grant parole, it would just give inmates a chance to have their case considered. They said that offenders deserve a chance to prove they have changed.

“Again, parole is not a retrial of the case. Parole is the opportunity to have men and women, human beings, reenter society, rebuild their communities, and show and prove that the Department of Corrections, a state government agency, is doing their job,” said one speaker.

Others said the issue has already been extensively studied and urged lawmakers to take action this year.

“I mean, how many more parole bills need to be sent to the crime commission for study?” said one speaker, whose name was listed as Michelle Hawkins as she provided testimony virtually.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, who was a chief co-patron of the bill, said he supports the restoration of parole but agreed that the issue needs more study.