RICHMOND, Virginia – The Virginia state Senate on Monday passed two bills relating to the Virginia Parole Board that aim to bring more transparency to individual votes and give warnings to victims of crimes or their families when a decision to release an offender has been made.
Senate Bill 1125, introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) (pictured above), specifically requires the board to notify a victim of a crime through either written or electronic means that a decision has been made to grant parole to the inmate who committed the related offense.
Under the bill, the board would need to provide notice to the victim within seven days of making a parole decision unless that person has submitted a written request to forgo being notified.
“This is particularly important to families of crime victims and victims of sexual and domestic violence,” Obenshain said in an interview with The Virginia Star. “If they don’t have notice, they don’t have an opportunity to make adjustments or be prepared for the release of their perpetrator and the possibility that they may encounter that person. It’s just a commonsense measure and a measure of courtesy that we really ought to expect from the parole board and Department of Corrections.”
Obenshain said he was contacted by prosecutors, crime victims and the public with concerns about the scarcity of information being released by the board.
The veteran lawmaker has been extremely vocal about decisions made by the parole board as well as its documented troubles properly notifying relevant parties, and even has a separate bill that is now up for a passage vote that calls for the board to release monthly reports on the actions it takes with specific information included.
Back in early October, the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) released reports substantiating five allegations that the board did not give notifications to Commonwealth’s Attorneys of prisoners’ pending releases within the allotted time frame and seven allegations where they failed to make adequate efforts to contact victims prior to granting parole.
When those reports were released, Obenshain spoke on the Senate floor and called for Governor Ralph Northam to fire and replace every member of the parole board.
SB 1125 unanimously passed the legislative body by a 39-0 vote along with other bills en bloc, meaning together at the same time, so no floor discussion between legislators took place over the measure.
The second bill about the parole board passed by the Senate was introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke County). Senate Bill 1103 would make the individual votes of parole board members public records and be subject to provisions under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
“Every counsel and commission in Virginia votes’ are public except the parole board, and they should have their votes public just the same,” Suetterlein told The Star. “They vote on very important issues and they need to be public.”
Suetterlein added that he believes this change is especially important since the board makes important choices that can impact public safety.
SB 1103 passed the body by a 33-6 vote, but six Democratic Senators, including Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), opposed the legislation.
“Parole Board members have a very difficult job, have been threatened for their votes and I do not see a problem that we need to fix here,” Surovell told The Star after Monday’s session.
Suetterlein’s bill is the exact same as legislation he sponsored during the 2020 special session, which was passed by the Senate at the time but then promptly killed by the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee. When asked about SB 1103’s chances in the House this time around, Suetterlein gave a non-answer.
Now, both pieces of legislation are in the House and will be referred to a committee for the first round of consideration in the coming days.
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