‘It Didn’t Work:’ States That Ended Parole for Violent Crimes Are Thinking Again

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WAVERLY, Va. — After Zenas Barnes was convicted of three robberies in the 1990s, he accepted a plea deal that stunned even veteran lawyers for its severity: 150 years in state prison.

Mr. Barnes, who was 21 at the time, said that he had not realized when he took the deal that the Virginia Legislature had, only months before, abolished the most common type of parole, meaning that there was a good chance he would die in prison. .

Twenty-five years later, the State Legislature, newly dominated by Democrats, is poised to broaden parole for the first time in a generation. The move would give Mr. Barnes and thousands of other prisoners convicted of violent crimes a chance for parole, which allows inmates to be released early.

Watching closely are lawmakers across the nation, including in California, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Like Virginia those states decades ago virtually eliminated discretionary parole, granted by appointed boards on a conditional basis, during an era of surging violent crime and the imposition of progressively harsher punishments.

“We thought we were fighting crime, and it didn’t work,” said David Marsden, a Democratic state senator in Virginia, who has previously introduced bills to restore parole but was blocked by Republican majorities. “But more recently, we’ve stopped trying to teach lessons and started trying to solve problems. People are now more likely to believe that people deserve a second chance.”

After watching the nation’s prison population grow by 500 percent since the 1980s, lawmakers have aggressively sought to reduce prison rolls as part of a growing consensus that the criminal justice system has incarcerated too many Americans.

Louisiana, for instance, the state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate, has in recent years cut its prison population to a level not seen since the 1990s. Last year, New York approved a law ending cash bail for most people charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felony crimes, a move aimed at preventing people from being held for longer periods only because they could not afford to pay bail.

On the federal level, President Trump signed legislation in December 2018 that shortened prison terms for some federal inmates.

Still, analysts say recent attempts to restore parole in California, Pennsylvania and elsewhere were beaten back amid political pressure on lawmakers over concerns that someone released on parole could commit a serious violent crime.

Even after Virginia lawmakers abolished many forms of parole in the 1990s, some types of it remained available, including the possibility of parole for prisoners older than 61 and for inmates arrested before Jan. 1, 1995.

Gone, though, for new inmates was the sort of parole most inmates had previously been released on. On parole, offenders are generally allowed to serve the remainders of their sentences outside of prison with stipulations that they meet regularly with a parole officer, stay employed, get counseling, and pass drug and alcohol tests. If they fail to adhere to the rules, they will often go back to prison.

Separate from parole, Virginia has retained a probation system for jail inmates, who have been convicted of misdemeanor crimes and who are also monitored regularly by the authorities. The state also allows prison inmates to be released early for good behavior, although prisoners are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

Even in Virginia, where Democrats won majorities in both chambers of the Legislature in November, and which also has a Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, the question of expanding parole remains politically perilous. This month, Democrats shelved a bill that would have restored the possibility of parole for nearly 17,000 inmates — more than half the state’s prison population. Instead, Democrats have focused on more modest efforts to restore parole to older inmates.

“The prevailing attitude of policymakers is we’ve come to the limit because they don’t want to release violent offenders,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for shorter sentences and other policy changes to the criminal justice system.

There is no significant difference in violent crime rates between states that allow parole and those that do not, according to federal data.

But Mr. Mauer said many people associate parolees with recidivism and violence, and their crimes often garner significant public attention.

Republican lawmakers have warned that restoring parole would make Virginia — which has the fourth lowest violent crime rate of any state — more dangerous.

“When parole is granted, it will result in violent criminals being released into our communities,” said Robert Bell, a Republican member of the House of Delegates. Mr. Bell added that parole “will force victims of violent crimes and their families to relive the worst day of their lives over and over again.”

The Virginia Victim Assistance Network, a crime victims’ advocacy group, also opposes widening the number of people who can get parole.

“Violent crime offenders should be held accountable for the crimes they have committed against victims and their families,” a statement from the group said.

Kate McCord, associate director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the organization had not taken an official position on parole. If it is restored, she said, parole boards should have broad discretion.

“It is in the best interest of survivors to have a parole board look at the record of the person incarcerated, the crimes they committed, and whether they had made an effort to rehabilitate themselves,” she said. “And those being released should have adequate support in terms of finding employment and having access to stable housing.”

Both chambers of the Virginia Legislature have already approved a bill that would make hundreds of prison inmates eligible for parole because they were convicted by juries that were not informed by courts that defendants were no longer eligible for parole after the practice was abolished in 1995.

Governor Northam has said he will support it.

Other bills expected to be approved include a measure that would restore the possibility of parole to thousands of inmates who have served 20 years or more of their sentences. Another would grant parole eligibility to prisoners who are older than 50, a group that may number in the thousands. The governor has not yet said whether he supports those bills.

During a quarter century in prison, Mr. Barnes said he had watched as inmates tried and convicted of murder came and went, serving sentences shorter than the ones that were common during the 1990s at the height of the tough-on-crime era.

Inside the Sussex II State Prison, about an hour’s drive south of Richmond, Mr. Barnes, 46, wore a prison-issue blue shirt and bluejeans. Guards did not remove his handcuffs. His salt-and-pepper beard was neatly trimmed, his head had been freshly shaved.

“I’ve owned my guilt from the beginning,” he said of his robberies, the last of which ended with him being shot, eight times, by the police. He spent nearly a month in the hospital recovering from the shooting. “I’m just asking for a little bit of mercy. I didn’t deserve 150 years for the crime, but we’re past that. I’m rehabilitated. I’ve overhauled my thinking.”

In 1995, when Mr. Barnes was 20, he and a friend pretended to be carrying concealed guns and robbed three fast food restaurants in Norfolk in the span of a few weeks.

Mr. Barnes said that his public defender told him he was facing 600 years in prison, but that if he accepted a plea deal for 150 years he could be released on parole in as little as five years.

“I was too green to know better,” Mr. Barnes said. His robbery partner had already been convicted and sentenced to more than 40 years.

David Hargett, a lawyer who would later represent Mr. Barnes on an appeal, said that taking a plea bargain with a 150-year sentence in a non-death-penalty case had been “inadvisable, unreasonable, and contrary to all conceivable reason.”

Mr. Barnes’s original lawyer, who was his public defender, Duncan R. St. Clair III, did not respond to a letter or multiple phone messages left at his office.

But during a hearing to consider overturning the sentence in 2001, Mr. St. Clair denied misleading Mr. Barnes. “It was the best plea agreement that I could get,” Mr. St. Clair told the judge. “It wasn’t a good plea agreement. It wasn’t a happy day, but it was the best I could do.”

Records show that Mr. St. Clair’s law license was revoked by the Virginia State Bar in 2015 for misconduct, including lying to clients.

For Mr. Barnes, long stretches of idle prison time had helped him better understand his own shortcomings, he said.

“I was able to use this time to learn about myself — that it’s about progress, not perfection,” he said. “I’m proud of the man I grew into.”

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