Virginia lawmakers defeat 'second look' bill to allow inmates to ask court for reduced sentences

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A bill that would have allowed people with lengthy prison terms to petition a court to consider reducing their sentences after serving a minimum of 15 years was defeated in the Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday.

This is the third consecutive year that a so-called second look measure failed to pass. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, called for setting up a three-tier system for inmates to request sentence modification after they have served at least 15, 20 or 25 years, depending on the crime.

The House Appropriations Committee voted to carry the Senate bill over to next year, effectively killing its chances of passage in 2024. A similar measure in the House died earlier this month.

Under Deeds' bill, inmates serving time for a range of crimes — including larceny, arson, rape and some murder convictions — would be eligible to file for reduce sentences, but crime victims and prosecutors would have to support a petition before a hearing could be granted. A judge would ultimately decide. People people serving time for aggravated murder would not be eligible.

Deeds said the bill was amended to try to ease the concerns of crime victims who feared it was too easy on people who had committed serious offenses.

“It doesn't coddle them. You're talking about people who have spent 15, 20 or 25 years in prison. That's a long period of time,” he said.

Emotional hearings were held on the legislation, with crime victims pleading for lawmakers to reject the bill so they and their families do not suffer further trauma.

“This bill has been introduced that would potentially let my husband’s killer out as he is given some second look?” said Paige O’Shaughnessy, whose husband was murdered, in one hearing. “You want to give him a second look? How can you put my family through this again and again and again?”

Santia Nance, co-founder of the advocacy group Sistas in Prison Reform, said that because Virginia abolished parole in 1995, the second look bill was seen as a way to give inmates who have served long periods of time the ability to argue for a reduced sentence.

“If they’ve done everything they are supposed to do and they are rehabilitated, then they should have a chance to go back in front of a judge to show that they can reenter society safely,” Nance said Wednesday.

Sheba Williams, founder of the advocacy group Nolef Turns, supported the bill and said not all victims and survivors of crime oppose it.

“I believe wholeheartedly in accountability for those who have caused harm, but we all know the systems that are in place to serve justice are unbalanced, inconsistent and need reform,” she said during an earlier hearing.

Deeds, who suffered a widely known family tragedy in 2013 when his 24-year-old son stabbed him repeatedly before taking his own life, said he understands why the bill met resistance.

“From personal experience I can tell you that losing a loved one in a traumatic event is a very difficult thing,” Deeds said. “A lot of people who have had that experience get stirred up when something like this (bill) comes up.”

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Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin contributed to this report.