Today, the ACLU of Virginia, New Virginia Majority, Virginia CURE, and the Sentencing Project sent Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam a letter to voice our opposition to legislation that would mandate life without parole for certain persons sentenced to Virginia prisons, arguing that public safety goals will not be met by increasing the severity of prison terms.
"High-profile crimes have driven the expansion of life without parole nationally, contributing to a surge in incarceration rates and time spent behind bars – with the average length of imprisonment increasing by 24 percent between 2000-15," stated the letter. "There is some tendency to generalize the circumstances of a single offense as the reason to mandate life prison terms. In reality, these tragic outcomes are rare; most violent crime is situational and contributing factors may include the influence of drugs or alcohol."
The letter pointed out that Virginia’s prison population increased more than 700 percent since 1970 at tremendous social and financial cost. "The best single proximate explanation of the rise in incarceration is not rising crime rates, but the policy choices made by legislators to increase the use of imprisonment as a response to crime," stated the letter. "This includes flawed efforts such as abolishing parole in 1994 and instituting “truth in sentencing” which mandated that anyone convicted of offenses after January 1, 1995 serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, a mandatory minimum that applies now to all convictions making specific mandatory minima for some crimes superfluous."
"Recognizing the capacity for rehabilitation and allowing for a meaningful opportunity for release strengthens public safety priorities. Life-sentenced prisoners are frequently called upon by prison staff to serve as mentors to newly arrived prisoners. In addition, multiple studies confirm that the prevalence of misconduct is quite low compared to non-life prisoners, in contrast to the theory that life-sentenced prisoners are more volatile because they have 'nothing to lose.' The challenge for Virginia is to develop a more comprehensive rehabilitative program in prison that addresses the underlying reasons that contributed to violent offending."
For the above reasons, the ACLU of Virginia and its coalition partners called on Gov. Northam to veto House Bill 2615 and Senate Bill 1501.
You can read the full letter below.