Prospects fade in Virginia for prison reform legislation
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Inmate advocates began the current legislative session in Virginia pushing for a series of prison reforms: free phone calls for inmates, restrictions on solitary confinement, a new ombudsman’s office and an opportunity for some prisoners to ask a judge to modify their sentences.
But with a little over a week left before the session ends, those prospects are fading fast as the bills meet resistance in the GOP-led House of Delegates.
The measures always faced a tough climb in House, where the speaker and a key committee chair are tough-on-crime former prosecutors and victims’ rights are a top priority. But advocates criticized their defeat, given that some of the bills had a degree of bipartisan support in the Senate or sponsors from both parties.
“It’s disappointing to see members of the General Assembly taking partisan lines on what has been bipartisan legislation in order to score points prior to the election this November,” said Shawn Weneta, who spent 16 years of a 30-year sentence in prison for embezzlement before being pardoned and now works for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
One of the bills, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dave Marsden, would have created an office of an ombudsman for the Department of Corrections.
“Exercising physical control of other human beings is the most dangerous, difficult thing we do in the Commonwealth. And we have no oversight over that. We don’t know what’s going on,” Marsden said in a committee hearing.
The measure called for the ombudsman to be selected by a corrections oversight committee made up of lawmakers and citizens. They would have had the power to conduct inspections and evaluate complaints from employees, inmates and others. The agency currently has an internal ombudsman services unit that handles formal inmate grievances.
Marsden’s measure won unanimous approval from the Senate and a House subcommittee before being tabled Monday in the House Appropriations Committee amid opposition from the Department of Corrections. The department argued that the total fiscal impact of the ombudsman office was unclear, that the DOC operates within the bounds of the law and that the state’s watchdog agency already has similar investigative authority.
Jerry Fitz, a legislative liaison for the DOC, said the bill would create “another layer of government in terms of having oversight of the department.”
The measure had support from a range of outside groups, from the ACLU of Virginia to the right-wing Americans for Prosperity, as well as two groups that represent corrections officers.
Marsden said in an interview that he’s holding out some hope the idea could still be addressed through the budget process.
The same appropriations committee also voted down a bill to allow prison inmates access to free phone calls and web-based or electronic communications systems, which supporters said would improve safety by helping keep inmates connected with their loved ones.
“Making communications free or reduced is the most cost-effective rehabilitation program that the Commonwealth could implement. It would cost less than 1% of the DOC’s annual budget,” said Democratic Sen. Jennifer Boysko, who sponsored the bill.
Fitz said the department’s objection was based on cost, saying families spent more on phone calls alone last year than the $5 million the Senate budget for fiscal year 2024 allocates to lower the cost of phone calls, video visitation and electronic messages between inmates and their families.
Another effort by Democratic Sen. Joe Morrissey to eliminate or cap fees charged in local and regional jails for snacks, hygiene products and other items inmates buy in jail commissaries never made it out of the Senate. The bill faced strong opposition from sheriffs, who run the jails and said the fees are used to pay for rehabilitative, educational and recreational programs for inmates.
On Wednesday, a bill that would have allowed certain inmates to ask judges to modify their sentences was also killed after a hearing that featured emotional testimony from crime victims and their families.
Under the “second look” bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen, inmates who have served at least 15 years of their sentences could petition their original sentencing court and ask a judge to consider good behavior in prison, updated sentencing guidelines and other factors.
Inmates convicted of aggravated murder or first-degree murder, and those who had a second or subsequent conviction for second-degree murder, would not be eligible.
The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, but was defeated in a unanimous, bipartisan vote in the House subcommittee.
Two friends who were carjacked, kidnapped, and repeatedly beaten and raped when they were college students in 1992 were among those who urged members to vote against the bill.
“This bill re-victimizes the people that had to live through these heinous acts,” said one of the women, who identified herself by a first name. The Associated Press does not typically identify victims of sexual assault.
Still alive is legislation that would limit the use of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons, though its prospects are uncertain. A House bill and a Senate bill are headed to a conference committee, where lawmakers will try to resolve differences. The main sticking point is a provision in the Senate bill that would limit the number of days inmates can be placed in segregation to 15 during any 60-day period.
Arlington Public Defender Brad Haywood, who founded Justice Forward Virginia, an advocacy organization for criminal justice reform, said any hope of getting significant prison reforms through the politically divided General Assembly this year ended when the prison ombudsman bill died.
“If they are not going to pass the ombudsman, I can’t see them doing anything more substantial than that,” Haywood said.