After passing the Senate with bipartisan support, state Sen. Mark Obenshain’s Virginia Parole Board transparency bill was tabled by the House of Delegates Committee for Courts of Justice in a party-line vote Tuesday.
Senate Bill 5050 aimed to increase transparency and accountability for the state’s Parole Board. It cleared the Senate in the ongoing special session 39-0. Obenshain was inspired to introduce the legislation after the release of three felons earlier this year with no notification to the victim’s families or the commonwealth’s attorneys where the crimes occurred.
“The bill was not controversial,” Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said during an interview Wednesday. “There wasn’t a soul in the Senate who voiced opposition."
Obenshain said his bill would have addressed transparency concerns, despite the bill being “watered down” over objections from Senate Republicans.
On Wednesday, Obenshain said the only thing on his mind was how fast he could get the bill redrafted and refiled for the next General Assembly session in 2021.
Prior to his bill being heard by the House committee, Obenshain said, the committee’s chair, Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, told him that he did not need to attend the hearing.
“It seems clear that the Democrats on the committee decided beforehand and without a hearing that the bill would be tabled,” Obenshain said in a press release. “I showed up anyway because I feel very strongly that every bill, especially bills that receive unanimous bipartisan support in one chamber, deserve a hearing.”
The senator said Wednesday that Gov. Ralph Northam's administration seemed to be determined to kill any bill that highlighted the “embarrassing actions” by the Parole Board, adding that he proposed the bill to increase transparency.
Obenshain said he wasn’t going to let the committee kill the bill “under cover of darkness,” adding that sun needed to shine on the process.
“The Northam administration and its allies have clearly decided to circle the wagons around their Parole Board appointees and kill any bill that might call attention to the board’s misconduct and omissions,” he said.
If approved, the legislation would require that once the chairman of the Parole Board gives notice to the commonwealth’s attorney following a decision to grant parole to an inmate, the Department of Corrections can set a release date for the inmate no sooner than 21 business days from the date of notification.
The bill would also have required the board’s monthly report to be published on the last day of every month and show the offenses a prisoner committed, where the prisoner was convicted and the length of time served.
The committee also tabled a bill from Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, that would have required the individual votes of the Parole Board to be public record and subject to the Virginia Freedom on Information Act.
Suetterlein’s bill was referred to the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council for further study, while Obenshain’s bill was referred to the Virginia State Crime Commission for study. Obenshain said in the press release that the commission was recently reorganized by House and Senate Democrats, who removed all but one Republican member from the commission.
And while Obenshain said it was not unprecedented for a bill that received bipartisan support to be killed in another chamber, it was unprecedented for a bill to receive “that broad bipartisan support and be prejudged before a hearing.”
“I think there are important public safety issues being raised in communities across Virginia by that board,” he said. “We are going to continue to talk about it.”