The offices of the Virginia Parole Board in Richmond. (Virginia Mercury)
A former Southwest Virginia judge appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to lead the Virginia Parole Board released a detailed report this month calling for a major overhaul of a state body he said has suffered from a lack of resources and too much secrecy.
In a 28-page report to the governor, Parole Board Chairman Chadwick Dotson made a series of recommendations on how the General Assembly could reform the five-person board that reviews inmates’ petitions for release and decides whether they should be granted or denied.
Those recommendations include increasing staff at an agency that only has 10 full-time employees and 29 part-time workers, adding another member to the board and conducting “quasi-public” parole hearings that the media could potentially observe. Dotson also stressed that Parole Board votes are now a matter of public record, and that he has instructed staff to provide as much information as possible in response to information requests, even when the state’s Freedom of Information Act makes disclosure optional.
“In recent years, the Virginia Parole Board has operated largely in the shadows, with Board members making decisions in secret, shielded from public scrutiny,” Dotson wrote in the report. “Most recent boards did not meet on a regular basis to discuss cases. Decisions were made by individual members in their offices around the state, with no oversight. The reasons given for each decision to grant or deny parole were boilerplate, providing little to no insight into the board’s reasoning.”
To ensure the public has confidence in what the Parole Board is doing, Dotson said, the agency “must embrace an over-the-top level of transparency.”
Youngkin has made Parole Board reform a top issue after a series of controversial parole decisions made by a prior board during the term of former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. A series of watchdog reports by the Office of the State Inspector General revealed the prior board wasn’t following its own rules on allowing victims and prosecutors to give meaningful input on how an inmate’s release might impact them or their communities.
Some members of the Northam administration defended the confidentiality surrounding Parole Board procedures as necessary given the nature of parole cases, which can involve sensitive information from law enforcement and prison officials and raise concerns about possible retaliation if the process were to play out in public view.
Official investigative reports about the past Parole Board’s activities were almost entirely redacted in 2020 after prior leaders invoked the Parole Board’s blanket exemption from transparency laws to argue information provided to investigators could not be released, even as part of a government report meant to hold the board accountable for missteps.
Upon taking office, Youngkin fired all five Parole Board members who served under Northam and replaced them with his own appointees. The Democratic-led state Senate blocked some of those appointments in a partisan feud last year after Republicans took the rare step of rejecting some of Northam’s final board appointments. The board currently has a full complement of five members, but all except Dotson will need to be confirmed on a bipartisan basis in the upcoming legislative session.
In one of his first executive orders, Youngkin requested a review of Parole Board operations and asked Attorney General Jason Miyares to investigate alleged impropriety that occurred under the previous board.
The attorney general’s review doesn’t appear to be complete. A Miyares spokeswoman declined to comment.
The report from Dotson, a former prosecutor who also worked as a professor and dean of students at the Appalachian School of Law, says the board he took over had “significant backlogs” in both parole cases and petitions for pardons. It also notes there could be significant public costs involved in making the agency more functional.
“This isn’t the government’s money, it’s the money of all 8.6 million Virginians that we serve, and we must never forget that,” Dotson wrote. “At the same time, we must recognize that this agency has been left to wither on the vine, and that has contributed mightily to the chaos surrounding VPB in recent years. While the public largely thinks that parole has been abolished, the fact is that the Parole Board’s case load continues to rise, stressing a staff of largely part-time employees.”
Virginia largely abolished parole in 1995 as part of a “truth in sentencing” initiative put forward by then-Gov. George Allen. Inmates sentenced prior to that law remained eligible for parole, and Dotson said the state has seen a steady increase in the number of older inmates eligible for geriatric parole.
Dotson’s recommendations include adding a sixth Parole Board member so that members could “conduct hearings around the Commonwealth” rather than leaving that process to part-time parole examiners.
“In the interest of complete transparency, media will be allowed to request access to the hearings,” Dotson wrote.
A more robust parole review process would require more staff and, potentially, a standalone Parole Board office and information technology system independent of the Department of Corrections, which the board currently relies on for much of its administrative functions. A specific computer system shortcoming is drop-down menus that require board members to pick generic reasons for granting or denying parole that Dotson said are “often not helpful in providing feedback as to the actual reasoning” of board decisions.
The report also recommends numerous ways to prioritize getting input from victims and prosecutors, steps already outlined in state law that haven’t always been vigorously followed in the past, according to state investigators.
In a news release Monday, Youngkin praised Dotson for working to improve an agency that had “undermined the confidence of our citizens.”
“While there is more work to be done, I am proud of Chairman Dotson and the new board for implementing changes to ensure they are considering victims and their families, increasing transparency and following the law,” Youngkin said.
The General Assembly’s 2023 session begins Wednesday.
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