Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed into law Monday a bill providing parole eligibility after 20 years in prison to people who were under 18 at the time of the offense. The new law effectively abolishes life-without-parole sentences for children, in recognition of their greater capacity for rehabilitation.
House Bill 35 passed the state Senate last week after passing the House last month. Its signing by the governor makes Virginia the 23rd state to ban sentencing children to die in prison, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
The bill will impact more than 700 people currently incarcerated in Virginia who were sentenced in adult court for crimes when they were children, according to a legislative analysis.
The new law provides parole review not only for youth offenders sentenced to life imprisonment but also for those with “active sentences that total more than 20 years.”
By retroactively granting parole eligibility to people with juvenile life sentences and de facto life sentences, the law responds to recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings recognizing that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing” and their diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change and rehabilitation make them “less deserving of the most severe punishments.”
The law doesn’t guarantee release, but it provides what the Court has described as a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
“This is the eighth year that I have addressed this issue in the legislature,” said Senator Dave Marsden, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. “While there are many individuals who remain dangerous, there are many more who have made strong efforts to turn their lives around while incarcerated and are worth the Parole Board taking a look at whether they can be restored to society. We are a nation of second chances and those who are incarcerated for long periods of time when they are juveniles are especially deserving of that look.”
Virginia eliminated parole for all but a narrow set of cases in 1995 amid a nationwide surge in excessive sentencing. As a result, The Appeal reports, the state’s prison population more than doubled from 1990 to 2015, and the proportion of incarcerated people above age 50 soared from 4.5% to 20%.
Virginia’s parole board has denied 94% of parole applications since 2014. But lawmakers filed several bills to reinstate parole this year, and may still commission a study to advance parole reform.
HB 35 and similar bills “are a first attempt to really crack open the idea of bringing parole back to the system,” Amy Woolard, an attorney and policy coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center, told The Appeal. She’s among the advocates calling on the state parole board to ensure that HB 35 provides youth with a meaningful chance for release.
“There’s optimism, but for those of us who have been advocating on these issues, the proof is in the action.”