Legal Aid Justice Center Files Class Action Lawsuit Against Virginia Parole Board on Behalf of Virginia Parolees
This morning the Legal Aid Justice Center, with the assistance of Troutman Sanders LLP and other attorneys, filed a class action in federal court in Richmond on behalf of 11 Virginia inmates. The suit challenges the Virginia Parole Board’s administration of the parole process in a manner that deprives the thousands of Virginia inmates convicted of violent offenses committed prior to 1995 of their right to fair and meaningful consideration for parole as required by Virginia law and the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit, Burnette v. Fahey, was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond.
Stephen A. Northup of Troutman Sanders stated, “We are filing this lawsuit today on behalf of those imprisoned in Virginia who are eligible for parole but are being denied their constitutional rights. Virginia law requires the Parole Board to release those found suitable for parole and to consider a broad range of circumstances in making this determination. In violation of Virginia law and protections under the U.S. Constitution, the Parole Board has been making parole determinations without considering all the circumstances Virginia law requires.” Virginia law and the Virginia Parole Board’s written manual state that the circumstances to be considered in making a parole determination include the nature of the crime, the sentence imposed, the inmate’s prior record, the inmate’s record in prison, whether the inmate has been rehabilitated, and whether release would be an acceptable risk.
Virginia abolished discretionary parole in 1995. The men and women who committed crimes in Virginia before 1995, however, are still eligible for parole. For individuals sentenced under the old parole system, judges often imposed lengthy sentences, believing that these men and women would be released on parole after serving as little as one-quarter of the sentence they received. Abigail Turner, the Litigation Director for the Legal Aid Justice Center, stated, “The Parole Board’s unlawful conduct has prolonged the plaintiffs' imprisonment and caused them to serve far longer sentences than those contemplated by the law at the time the sentences were handed down prior to 1995. The Parole Board’s treatment of parole-eligible inmates convicted of violent offenses has amounted to a de facto abolition of parole, violating not only due process but also the ex post facto provision of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits punishment beyond that issued at the time of conviction.”
William R. Richardson, Jr., an attorney from Arlington who has worked with members of the Virginia General Assembly to reform the parole process, stated, “The failure of the Virginia Parole Board to give fair and meaningful consideration of parole for ‘old law’ inmates, in addition to being illegal, harms Virginia taxpayers, who must bear the cost of warehousing thousands of men and women who by any reasonable measure have rehabilitated themselves and no longer belong in prison. Continuing to lock away so many men and women who have learned useful job skills also deprives the Commonwealth of revenue they could contribute from their work. And it deprives their families of money for support as well as emotional support of children as they grow up and of parents as they age.”
The Virginia Institutionalized Persons Project of the Legal Aid Justice Center and a group of private attorneys concerned about Virginia’s broken parole system are representing the plaintiffs and the class. The class action includes approximately 6,000 men and women incarcerated in Virginia for violent offenses committed before 1995.
The plaintiffs have asked the court to order the Board to issue new rules which conform to the requirements of due process and ensure fair and meaningful consideration of parole for inmates convicted of violent offenses. In addition, plaintiffs ask the court to require the Parole Board to specifically consider all of the required factors in reaching parole decisions and to enjoin the Parole Board from focusing solely on the nature of the crime in deciding suitability for parole.
LEGAL AID JUSTICE CENTER, VIRGINIA INSTITUTIONALIZED PERSONS PROJECT
Additional information about the lawsuit is available at www.justice4all.org/our_programs/VIP
About the Legal Aid Justice Center
The Legal Aid Justice Center provides legal representation for low-income individuals in Virginia who have the least access to legal resources. The LAJC staff of 40 work from offices in Charlottesville, Falls Church, Petersburg, and Richmond. The Virginia Institutionalized Persons (VIP) Project within the LAJC led the effort to bring this lawsuit. The VIP’s mission is to investigate the conditions of Virginia’s prisons and mental institutions and, through political advocacy and legal action, to increase accountability within the system to ensure that Virginia operates its institutions consistent with constitutional standards and human dignity. See www.justice4all.org/our_programs/VIP for more information.
About Troutman Sanders LLP
Troutman Sanders LLP is an international law firm with over 650 lawyers and 15 offices in North America, Europe and Asia. The firm’s lawyers provide counsel and advice in practically every aspect of civil and commercial law related to the firm’s core practice areas: Corporate, Finance, Litigation, Public Law and Real Estate. See www.troutmansanders.com for more information.
Legal Aid Justice Center
Abigail Turner, 434-977-0553, x. 138
Troutman Sanders LLP
Stephen A. Northup, 804-697-1240