As was befitting the unusual times in which we live, this year’s session of the Virginia General Assembly was unlike any other.
Members of the House never spoke face-to-face. Our entire business was conducted virtually. As so many constituents have learned over the past year, electronic meetings are better than nothing, but they are no substitute for the real thing. Most importantly, I think the setup did NOT give citizens an adequate chance to speak out on legislation this year. That was a major disappointment.
One of the biggest disappointments in this session was the General Assembly’s failure to meaningfully act on recent reports of problems with the Virginia Parole Board. Reports over the past year have highlighted instances where the panel was NOT following the law in the process they use to release convicted felons back into the population. Sometimes the victims’ families are not properly notified of their release, nor are law enforcement in the areas that the former prisoner is returning to. This is a violation of the Board’s own policies.
House Democratic leaders rejected a bipartisan proposal that a special panel of lawmakers be convened to investigate. They claimed they had no authority over an Executive function. I disagree. As lawmakers, we have a moral duty to ensure that the laws and regulations we draft and approve are being properly followed.
One of the problems is with the way the Parole Board is allowed to operate. Unlike many other states, the Virginia Board is mostly exempt from the state’s public records law. If you request information under the Freedom of Information Act, they are under no obligation to comply in most cases. Also, citizens are NOT allowed to attend parole hearings. They are done in closed sessions. Their votes are not released.
House Democrats refused to hear a pair of Senate-passed bills that would have forced votes by members of the Parole Board be made public. This was a simple effort to demand accountability from one of the state’s most secret and cloistered institutions. And Democrats refused to allow it to even be debated in Committee.
There was one measure that did pass. It requires the Parole Board to release more information on their website, including the reasons why an inmate is being released. It also tightens requirements for reporting such releases to law enforcement. But none of this will go into effect for a year, well after Governor Ralph Northam leaves office.
This is a completely inadequate solution to a serious issue. Sunlight is the best disinfectant for government agencies. The VPB has operated like a “Star Chamber” for far too long. The minor corrections we approved this year will be insufficient to change that.
Even though this session is over, we remain committed to serving our constituents in all matters involving the state government. If you live in 14th House of Delegates district and have trouble with a state agency, please contact our office. You can contact me by e-mail at: DelDMarshall@house.virginia.gov or call the Danville office at 434-797-5861.