While legislation sponsored by Valley Delegates continued to stall in committees, Sen. Mark Obenshain’s Virginia Parole Board transparency bill passed the Senate on Wednesday and will head to the House of Delegates for consideration.
Senate Bill 5050 passed in a 39-0 vote, with Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, not voting.
The bill, which has not been assigned to a House committee as of Thursday, aims to increase transparency and accountability for the state’s Parole Board. Obenshain was inspired to introduce the legislation after the release of three felons with no notification to the victim’s families or the commonwealth’s attorneys where the crimes occurred.
“Victims and their families deserve better,” Obenshain said in a press release.
When the bill reported out of the Senate’s Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee with bipartisan support, Obenshain hoped the bill would do the same on the Senate floor.
And while Obenshain said the bill that passed was “watered down” over objections from Republicans, the legislation still contained transparency components, which was a “huge step in the right direction.”
During an interview Friday, Obenshain said there were two objectives that altered the bill, but left the legislation “largely intact.”
The first substitute focused on ensuring the Parole Board complied with its obligation to notify the victim’s family and area commonwealth’s attorneys when an inmate is soon to be released.
Obenshain said one amendment changed the language to place the burden on the Department of Corrections instead of the Parole Board, adding the change was one he didn’t have a real problem with.
Specifically, the bill requires that once the chairman of the Parole Board gives notice to the commonwealth’s attorney following a decisions 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.
“It still gives opportunity for the Parole Board to act on requests of considered releases,” Obenshain said.
The second amendment change focused on the reports the Parole Board is required to publish on the last day of every month — something the board hasn’t done since July.
Since March 2017, the board is supposed to post monthly decisions to its website as part of its operations. In those reports, the board does not include where an individual has been released or why parole was granted other than if the case was geriatric or regular parole.
“The Board has released violent felons without regard to requirements that victims and local prosecutors be notified in advance,” Obenshain said in a press release. “Their actions have highlighted the lack of transparency under which the Board operates, and this bill seeks to address those transparency concerns.”
Obenshain’s original bill would have required the monthly report to include reasoning behind an inmates release or denial of parole, adding that, “I didn’t think it was too much to ask why they are granted parole.”
That section of the bill was removed, but Obenshain said there were still transparency measures in the substitute.
If the bill passes through the General Assembly, the board would be required to show the offenses a prisoner committed, where the prisoner was convicted and the length of time served within the monthly reports.
“It provides information that should be helpful,” Obenshain said.
The Rockingham County Republican Senator said the bill would provide a better picture of what individual parole means for safety and their communities.
“They deserve to know,” he said.