It’s been evident for months that a thorough, transparent investigation into the actions and procedures of the Virginia Parole Board is not only warranted, but necessary to ensure public confidence in that agency.
How to conduct such an inquiry focused on public safety without it devolving into partisan, political grandstanding is less certain. But given the need for clarity over how the board made its decisions, with an eye toward clarifying procedures going forward, Virginia officials should find a workable solution.
The parole board is accused of a host of errors in its decisions last year to grant parole to several individuals convicted of violent felonies. A report by the Office of the State Inspector General found the board did not follow state law in notifying victims’ families or prosecutors, and did not keep accurate minutes of its meetings, among other missteps.
That controversy, already simmering, reached a boil when the OSIG released a report about the matter that was so heavily redacted that it was all but unreadable. Instead of transparency and insight into what happened, the public received pages of blacked-out text.
Predictably, that only raised more questions and gave voice to calls by Republican lawmakers that the Northam administration was covering for the parole board. Those calls grew louder with release of an earlier draft of the report, this time unredacted, which leveled new accusations against members of the board.
The draft makes additional serious accusations against former board chair, Adrianne Bennett, who is now a judge in Virginia Beach. The draft claims she pushed to parole Vincent L. Martin last year, who was convicted in the 1979 killing of a Richmond police officer, rather than remaining impartial in the deliberations.
The draft report and recording of an August meeting involving State Inspector General Michael Westfall and members of the governor’s staff were leaked to the media, drawing the administration’s ire. Northam then proposed a budget amendment to conduct an investigation, but was narrow in scope to only include the OSIG’s review and not the parole board’s action.
Lawmakers approved that measure earlier this month and the office of Attorney General Mark Herring announced Saturday that Nixon Peabody LLP had been hired to conduct the inquiry. That work should be illuminating but will not deal with the more pressing public concern — the parole board’s conduct.
Prominent Republican lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment, Jr. of James City County, last week called on House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Rules Committee Chair Mamie Locke to convene a special session to appoint a bipartisan commission of lawmakers to investigate.
The question, of course, is whether this is a matter of political posturing or a genuine attempt to improve the policies and practices of the parole board.
So long as Virginia has a system of parole, decisions about who to release will be subject to disagreement. Some of those under consideration have committed abhorrent acts which must be weighed against their conduct in prison and the potential to make meaningful contributions to society following release.
If the question before Virginia is whether existing policies are functional and adequate, whether the board it operating as intended or whether the proper protocols are in place, then an inquiry into this subject can be a productive undertaking. It can lend confidence to the board’s decisions and the justice system in general.
Similarly, an examination of the OSIG might return useful information as well. That office was created less than a decade ago and there are still doubts about the effectiveness of consolidating the various inspector generals in the executive branch under one umbrella.
But if this is simply an exercise driven by retribution and partisanship — by the administration against the OSIG or by Republicans against the governor — then Virginia needn’t bother.
These are serious policy questions deserving of serious answers. If a bipartisan investigation can provide them, let it be launched quickly.