A proposed law would require Virginia prisons to release many murderers when they reach age 60 or 65, even if prison officials know they are dangerous.
Under a bill proposed Friday by Delegate Don Scott (D-Portsmouth), parole officials would be stripped of their authority to block such inmates' release.
Right now, Virginia's parole board has the leeway to grant "geriatric release" to many older inmates. If it wants to, it can release inmates if they have been in prison for ten years and have reached the age of 60, or if they have been in prison for five years and have reached the age of 65 -- as long as they haven't committed a "Class 1" felony, which includes certain types of murders, like killing a police officer.
But it doesn't have to release such inmates, and it tends not to, unless an inmate is both in poor health and no longer dangerous.
Delegate Scott's bill, House Bill 431, would totally change this, leaving state officials powerless to block the release of many vicious killers. It says that:
Any person serving a sentence imposed upon a conviction for a felony offense, other than a Class 1 felony, (i) who has reached the age of 65 or older and who has served at least five years of the sentence imposed or (ii) who has reached the age of 60 or older and who has served at least 10 years of the sentence imposed shall be granted conditional release.
Scott's bill would require Virginia prisons to release them at that age, even if they have committed murder after previously being released, or they committed acts of violence in prison.
The assumption behind Scott's bill is that people "age out of" crime by the time they are 60 or 65. But that's not always true. Serial killer Albert Fish was deadly into his 60s. And some people remain dangerous even when they are very old.
A classic example is Albert Flick. At the age of 76, he murdered a woman, stabbing her at least 11 times while her twin children watched. He had previously been imprisoned from 1979 to 2004 for killing his wife by stabbing her 14 times in front of her daughter. Then he assaulted a woman in 2010, but avoided a long prison sentence because a judge deemed him too old to be a continuing threat. He proved the judge wrong by killing Kimberly Dobbie in front of her children in 2018. He began stabbing her without warning, in front of a laundromat, in broad daylight, using knives he purchased two days earlier for that purpose.
Under Scott's bill, an inmate like Flick would have to be released after five years in prison, no matter what. That would be very scary for victims' families.
Scott's bill is not the only legislation pending in Virginia that would release violent criminals.
Legislators have also proposed bills to reinstate parole in Virginia, which had been largely abolished in 1995. Parole would be available even to violent criminals who got shorter sentences in the past decade under the assumption that they'd never be eligible for parole.
On January 3, Governor Ralph Northam (D) proposed making prisoners eligible for parole at age 50 if they've served ten years. Since murderers, unlike most criminals, often receive ten or more years in prison, the primary beneficiaries of Northam's plan would be murderers. They would be eligible for parole at that age, even when they committed the worst murders, such as abducting and raping the victim before killing her, or killing multiple people.
Gov. Northam has also proposed making prisoners eligible for parole after only five years, when they reach age 55 -- which could result in people who commit murder at age 50 serving only a few years in prison.
Legislators have also proposed extending voting rights to inmates. As the Daily Caller notes, that legislation "appears to allow prisoners to vote in the jurisdiction of the jail, potentially making inmates a powerful voting bloc in sparsely populated communities."
"Virginia’s largest state prisons are in sparsely populated areas" where a large inmate population could defeat candidates preferred by most of the native population.
The Daily Caller quoted a former member of the Virginia Board of Elections saying that such voting "could lead to the inmates running the asylum."
Inmates could end up dictating the outcome of local issues, such as electing county prosecutors or voting for bond issues that inmates never have to pay off because they don't pay taxes and won't stay in the area after being released from prison. This is possible because the inmate population is large enough to shift the political balance of power in places like Lunenburg County.
Forty-eight of the 50 states do not allow prison inmates to vote. The two states that do allow inmates to vote have far fewer inmates than Virginia, and don't let inmates vote in the community that holds the prison. Instead, inmates can only vote by absentee ballot in the community they lived in before being incarcerated.
(Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department.)