The Courage of Our Convictions: The Abolition of Parole Will Save Lives and Money

Article excerpt

On Father's Day 1986, Richmond Police Detective George Taylor stopped Wayne DeLong for a routine traffic violation. DeLong, recently released from prison after serving time for murder, shot and killed the policeman.

Leo Webb was a divinity student at Richmond's Virginia Union University who liked helping people. One of those he helped was a man named James Steele, on parole for a malicious wounding. One day in 1991, Steele entered the bakery where Webb worked part time, shot him to death, took his money, and went out partying.

Tragic as such stories are, what makes these two particularly disheartening is that both could have been easily prevented. Both killers, jailed earlier for violent crimes, spent only a fraction of their sentences in prison. We are now paying the dividends of a liberal justice system that refuses to take punishment seriously: Virginia has witnessed a 28 percent increase in criminal violence over the last five years. Three out of every four violent crimes--murder, armed robbery, rape, assault--are now committed by repeat offenders (see page 5).

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This is why my administration pushed through legislation, which took effect on January 1, 1995 that will impose penalties for rape, murder, and armed robbery more than twice the national average for those crimes. We have abolished parole, established the principle of truth-in-sentencing, and increased as much as fivefold the amount of time that violent offenders will actually spend in jail. Experience vindicates what commonsense has always told us: The only foolproof crime-prevention technique is incarceration.

Our new system is attempting to unravel 30 years of paper-tiger laws based on the questionable philosophy that people can change, criminals can be rehabilitated, and every violent criminal--even a murderer--deserves a second chance. The new law in Virginia will prevent thousands of crimes, save lives, save money, and restore trust in the criminal justice system. Despite this, we now face entrenched opposition from liberals in the General Assembly, who hope to thwart reform by withholding funds to build the minimal number of prison facilities needed to house Virginia's most violent inmates.

A few weeks after taking office in January 1994, I created the Commission on Parole Abolition and Sentencing Reform. It was a bipartisan commission of prosecutors, judges, crime victims, law-enforcement officers, business leaders, and legal scholars. William Barr, a former attorney general of the United States, and Richard Cullen, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, co-chaired the commission. They had a daunting task.

I called for a special session of the General Assembly in September 1994 to focus the public's and the legislature's attention on this issue. I gave the commission six months to demonstrate the need for change, develop a detailed plan, and explain its costs and implementation.

We were quickly able to show why a complete overhaul was necessary. Convicted felons were serving about one-third of their sentences on average, and many served only one-sixth. Violent criminals were no exception. First-degree murderers were given average sentences of 35 years, but spent an average of only 10 years behind bars. Rapists were being sentenced to nine years and serving four. Armed robbers received sentences averaging 14 years and served only about four (see page 6).

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Amazingly, a prior conviction for a violent crime did not affect this phenomenon. Even murderers, rapists, and armed robbers who had already served time for similar offenses were receiving the same sentences and serving the same amount of time as first offenders.

Statewide, the violent crime rate had risen 28 percent in five years, even though the crime-prone age bracket (15 to 24 years) was shrinking. Criminologists widely regard trends in the size of this demographic group as the best predictor of criminal activity. …