Commentary

California Too Conservative for Some Virginia Democrats

By Hans Bader | December 18, 2019 | 7:07am EST
(Photo by sophie ELBAZ/Sygma via Getty Images)
(Photo by sophie ELBAZ/Sygma via Getty Images)

To some Americans, staunchly progressive California may seem too liberal. But not to Virginia’s Democratic legislators.

They seem to find California too conservative, because they are proposing legislation that would make Virginia more liberal than California. That includes letting murderers vote while in prison, and letting them be paroled even if a court sentenced them to life without parole.

Virginia legislators have proposed allowing even the worst criminals to seek parole. Murderers could seek parole even if a court sentenced them to life in prison at a time when parole did not exist — such as a person convicted of murder who tortured his victim to death. Virginia abolished parole in 1995, due to discontent over the fact that criminals were serving only about 30 percent of their sentences before being released.

But parole would be made available to even the worst murderers by a recently introduced bill, SB 91. It would retroactively extend parole rights to current inmates, as well as giving future criminals the right to seek parole. Most willful and premeditated murders are Class 2 offenses under Virginia law, for which parole would be available after 15 years.

In California, a woman was recently sentenced to life in prison without parole for murdering a disabled woman through torture, by deliberately starving her to death. But under the Virginia parole bill, a similarly-cruel murderer could eventually be paroled.

Parole could be sought annually: before parole was abolished, relatives of murder victims would show up at parole hearings, year after year, in an effort to keep the killer of their loved one from being released. Testifying before the parole board took an emotional toll on survivors, forcing them to relive the crime in all its horror.

The legislation to reinstate parole may very well be enacted. That is because it is sponsored by Senator John Edwards, one of the most senior and powerful members of the state senate, and Kaye Kory, a long-time member of the House of Delegates.

Legislators have also proposed letting criminals vote even while in prison, rather than waiting until the end of their sentence.

measure sponsored by progressives in both houses of the Virginia legislature would let felons who are currently in prison vote, regardless of their crime. Currently, all but two states forbid prisoners to vote after they are found guilty of a felony.

States do that because prisoners haven’t yet paid their debt to society, and forfeit many rights while incarcerated. The Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment recognizes that states may deny people the right to vote “for participation in rebellion, or other crime.”  States historically denied the vote to felons, just as they denied it to other groups they perceived as unqualified to vote, like children, non-citizens, and the mentally incompetent.

Not even liberal California lets people who are currently in prison vote. The Virginia Constitution currently bans felons from voting, even after being released from prison, unless the governor restores their rights. But a measure recently introduced in Virginia’s legislature, SJ 8, would let them vote even before being released from prison, and even if they have committed a serious crime like murder or rape. This measure would amend the state constitution to give prisoners and mentally incompetent people the right to vote.

Only two states — Vermont and Maine — allow prison inmates to vote. Those states are unlike Virginia, because they have so few inmates that inmate voting has little impact on elections. In those states, prisoners can only vote by absentee ballot in the place where they last lived. They are not counted as residents of the town that houses a prison, which means their votes can’t sway local elections if they vote as a bloc.

In Virginia, that’s not the case. So if prisoners could vote, local elections in a rural area could be dominated by a large prison bloc vote, resulting in law-abiding taxpayers losing control of their local government to prisoners.



 

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