A bill aimed at increasing transparency and accountability for the Virginia Parole Board is headed to the Senate floor after reporting out of the Senate’s Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee with bipartisan support.
Senate Bill 5050, sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, was heard before the committee Monday and passed, 10-4. Democratic senators who voted in favor of the bill were Barbara Favola, of Fairfax; Jeremy McPike, of Manassas; “Monty” Mason, of Williamsburg; and Jennifer Boysko, of Fairfax.
Obenshain was not available for comment Wednesday but said in a press release that his bill advanced with bipartisan support “as it should.”
“Over the last few months, Virginians have been appalled by the egregious actions of the Virginia Parole Board and their disregard for the requirements of the law and its own policies and procedure,” Obenshain said in a press release. “The Board has released violent felons without regard to requirements that victims and local prosecutors be notified in advance.”
The senator said actions taken by the Parole Board have highlighted the lack of transparency under which the board operates, including how since March 2017 the board is supposed to post monthly decisions to its website, but hasn’t done so since June.
In a screenshot obtained by the Daily News-Record, the board had failed to provide monthly reports for May and June on its website as of June 30.
“This bill will allow the sun to shine a little bit brighter on the work of the Parole Board and it will more clearly establish requirements to ensure that its duties are properly performed,” Obenshain said.
The Parole Board also does not include where an individual has been released or why parole was granted other than if the case was geriatric or regular parole.
What sparked Obenshain to seek more transparency was the recent release of three felons with no notification of the victims’ families or the commonwealth’s attorneys where the crimes occurred.
In April the board granted parole to Vincent Lamont Martin, who was convicted in the Nov. 13, 1979, slaying of Richmond police officer Michael P. Connors.
Martin was sentenced to life and had been in prison for 40 years before being released on June 10.
In a report sent to Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, the Office of the State Inspector General conducted an administrative investigation of the Parole Board and determined the board did not provide notification to the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office within the required time frame, did not “endeavor diligently” to contact victims prior to releasing Martin and did not allow the victim’s family or other interested parties to meet with the board in accordance to the board’s policy and procedures.
Following the report, Obenshain, House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, and Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, issued a statement saying, “The results are shocking.”
“Both previous and current leadership of the board were actively working for Martin’s release, rather than seeking impartial justice,” the Republican leaders said in the letter. “These two officials worked to systematically exclude the testimony of anyone who opposed his release, including family members. They violated Parole Board policy, and they violated the law in utterly unjustifiable way.”
The members called for the resignation of all current members of the Virginia Parole Board or have Gov. Ralph Northam fire all members if they fail to resign.
During the first day of the special session last week, Obenshain took the Senate floor to speak further on his bill and said Northam’s Parole Board is “turning out dangerous, violent felons, the worst of the worst. What we have seen is utter disdain for the rule of law, for the rights of victims and for law enforcement here in the commonwealth of Virginia.”
“We got rioting in the streets of Gotham, so what do we do? We turn out the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin all at the same time,” he said.
But the Martin case wasn’t the only push to get the ball rolling as Obenshain also mentioned the cases of Patrick Schooley and Debra Scribner, who were also granted parole.
Schooley was convicted in 1979 and was given three life sentences for the robbery, abduction and murder of a 78-year-old Suffolk woman.
“He was turned out without notifying the victim’s family and probably turned out without notifying the prosecutor or the victim’s family,” Obenshain said on the Senate floor.
Scribner was convicted in 2012 for the murder of her son-in-law, Eric Wynn, and sentenced to 23 years and six months before being granted parole on March 30. The case was listed as geriatric.
Obenshain said Scribner co-opted her 15-year-old grandson into murdering his father, Wynn, and throwing the body down a well.
“[Wynn] got stuck in the well and she sent that boy down the well to unstick him and drop him all the way down the well, and then they had a party out in front of the house and this was in 2012 that Debra Scribner was convicted of this brutal murder,” Obenshain said. “Eight years later under the guise of the geriatric parole statute, the Parole Board was so determined to turn her and other people out of prison that they did so without notifying the prosecutor, without notifying the family.”
Obenshain said the Parole Board’s actions send the wrong message to Virginians.
“We are telling them we are willing to make gigantic leaps of faith with respect to violent felons and we see in the news every day how those leaps of faith are not justified,” he said.
The bill could be heard on the floor as early as next week.