Virginia lawmakers send Parole Board transparency bill to Youngkin

Governor’s office says proposal is still under review

By: - March 1, 2023 12:03 am

The offices of the Virginia Parole Board in Richmond. (Virginia Mercury)

In the final days of the 2023 legislation session, the Virginia General Assembly reached bipartisan agreement on a bill requiring the Virginia Parole Board to conduct more of its work in the open.

The agency, which has long been exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, would no longer have blanket immunity from transparency rules that apply to most government bodies. Legislation approved by both chambers Saturday would strike the Parole Board’s FOIA exemption from state law.

“That should please everybody,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, before the state Senate voted 40-0 to pass the final version of the proposal and send it to Gov. Glenn Youngkin. 

The governor has been generally supportive of making the five-person Parole Board more transparent. Asked about the governor’s stance, Youngkin’s office said he was reviewing the legislation.

The 2023 bill builds on a parole transparency measure approved last year that made Parole Board votes a matter of public record.

The new proposal goes further by requiring the board to hold public hearings, publish more frequent and more detailed reports on its decisions and make more of its investigative information available to attorneys and inmates involved in cases being heard. A delayed enactment clause was added to the bill late in the session, meaning it won’t take effect until July 1, 2024.

The proposal doesn’t come with a new infusion of funding and personnel to help the board make the shift to public parole hearings, an issue policymakers might have to address before the proposed law would go into effect next year.

“I think public hearings are a great idea. I just don’t have the manpower to implement it,” Parole Board Chairman Chadwick Dotson, a retired judge appointed to the job by Youngkin, said in an interview this week.

In a report to the governor earlier this year, Dotson said the agency he leads had been “left to wither on the vine.” Major improvements, he wrote, would be difficult without a substantial boost in resources for a small agency staffed mostly by part-time employees and reliant on the Virginia Department of Corrections for many of its administrative functions.

“There’s a lot more work still to be done here,” Dotson said of the pending transparency bill. “The version that passed moves the ball down the field to where we need to go. And there’s a lot to like about it.”

The bill’s path to approval wasn’t always clear, partly because the Parole Board has been at the center of a partisan battle over how to balance the rights of crime victims and public safety with the desire to give second chances to rehabilitated inmates.

During the session, Attorney General Jason Miyares released an investigative report on the activities of the prior Parole Board made up of Democratic appointees, alleging a pattern of recklessness in early 2020 as the board worked largely in secret to release numerous offenders convicted of violent crimes. 

Shortly after that report was released, Democrats in the state Senate blocked one of Youngkin’s appointees to the Parole Board. Democratic lawmakers pointed to newly public data showing that the rejected board member, former prosecutor Steven Buck, almost always voted against parole. Buck had been one of four replacement Parole Board members Youngkin selected in early 2022 after the Senate blocked most of the governor’s initial appointees to the board.

An earlier version of the bill sponsored by Morrissey included a provision requiring the board to inform inmates denied parole of “steps the prisoner may take to improve his likelihood of being granted parole.” That provision was taken out after some Republicans objected to creating new obligations to help inmates understand the process. However, more clearly defined eligibility criteria included in the legislation specify that the board must consider “the prisoner’s demonstrated rehabilitation, economic and educational development, commitment to prosocial behavior and community and family supports.”


The final bill was worked out at the end of the session by a conference committee made up of three Republicans and three Democrats. The legislation passed the House of Delegates 67-25, with Republicans supporting it and House Democrats about evenly split. The bill’s sponsor in the House was Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick.

Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but specific categories of prisoners remain eligible for early release. Those categories include offenders convicted before 1995, so-called Fishback offenders sentenced between 1995 and 2000, when juries weren’t told about the abolition of parole, geriatric inmates (defined as age 60 or 65 depending on time served), terminally ill inmates and some offenders convicted as juveniles who have served at least 20 years.  

In a report to Youngkin earlier this year, Dotson said the number of parole-eligible inmates has “risen substantially since 1995” and “continues to grow year after year.” There were 902 Virginia inmates eligible for parole in 2021, according to data Dotson included in the report, compared to 295 in 2014.

Recent monthly reports show the Youngkin-appointed Parole Board votes to grant parole in relatively few of the cases it hears. 

“We take each of these cases very seriously,” Dotson said. “The governor has a right to appoint members of the board that share his philosophy.”

The legislation would require more comprehensive data to be published on the board’s actions, including an annual report that shows how many inmates were considered for parole, how many received it and the board’s most common reasons for granting or denying parole.

“I’m big on letting people see our work,” Dotson said. “Because that’s the only way the public is going to regain trust in this agency.”


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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.