Life Without Parole: An Inside Look at Virginia’s Broken Parole System

Defenders of Virginia’s carceral system, like those who defend other oppressive and unjust carceral systems around the world, often claim that one goal of putting people in prison is to “reform” them.

They point to Virginia’s 20.6% recidivism rate (the second lowest in the nation, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections), as evidence that the state has found the perfect formula for who to put in prison, how long to put them there, and who has “reformed enough” to be let out.

But if Virginia’s prisons are really focused on reforming people and returning them to their communities, why does Virginia now imprison a higher percentage of its citizens than any Western country on earth? And why does it keep them in prison longer than almost any US state? And if prison is actually reforming people, why does the system keep costing Virginians more money, not less?

Virginia locks up 749 out of every 100,000 of its residents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. That’s a 13% higher rate than the US average, nearly 500% higher than the UK, and more than 1,000% higher than nine other NATO countries including Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands. It also has one of the highest average sentence lengths, 18 years, according to the Justice Policy Institute.

This is despite the overwhelming evidence that the “tough on crime” approach of putting more people in prison longer not only fails to keep our communities safe, it also costs Virginia taxpayers $1.5 billion annually, according to the Virginia ACLU, and costs Americans collectively more than $182 billion annually, according to PPI.

The reality is that defenders of Virginia’s current policies don’t want to reform people, they want a permanent prison and a cheap, involuntary labor force.

They also ignore the fact that the original purposes of our policing and prison system were specifically to control Black slaves and quell labor organizing. Unsurprisingly, that system — which still relies on many of the same racist beliefs and practices as it did during slavery — continues to target and harm Black and people of color with extreme bias. Those defending Virginia’s current system are perpetuating that same racist logic.

Yet, increasingly, people on the inside and outside are demanding new systems. Abolitionist and restorative and transformative justice movements are growing in Virginia, across the South, and beyond — movements focused on repairing harm, addressing the root causes of harm, and repairing relationships when possible.

But in order to create space for these new systems to grow, we need to first identify and remove the old, harmful ones. Virginia’s unjust parole policies are one of these oppressive systems. In an analysis by PPI, Virginia’s parole system received an “F-,” the lowest possible grade.

Before 1995, Virginia frequently used parole and “good behavior” credits as incentives for incarcerated people to reform. The average person served one-third of their original sentence, and many became eligible for parole after serving just 17% of their sentence, according to a 1994 report by then Virginia Gov. George Allen’s Commission on Parole Abolition and Sentencing Reform. While racial and other inequities still existed, defenders of the previous system could at least argue they were using the tools they claimed would encourage reform.

But starting in 1994, led by the newly elected Gov. Allen, a Republican, Virginia lawmakers adopted a series of “tough on crime” laws (an approach to crime reduction that researchers have repeatedly proved is both racially motivated and ineffective).

One of those laws effectively abandoned the use of parole in Virginia by making a large number of incarcerated people completely ineligible for parole and by raising the mandatory minimum sentence lengths for many crimes.

I am one of thousands of people ineligible for parole as a result of these draconian policies. I’ve been incarcerated in the Virginia Department of Corrections for nearly three decades for a homicide I committed in 1995 at the age of 21, three months after Virginia abolished parole, though I would not be convicted until 1999 at the age of 25. 


Kermit smiles while wearing a keffiyah. Photo credit: Kenya Williams

In 1992, my younger brother, Marquis, then 16 years old, was murdered. Just a few years later, a neighborhood friend recruited my youngest brother, Kenya, 15 years old at the time, into selling drugs, despite me pleading with the friend not to recruit him.

After Kenya got on the friend’s bad side, that friend threatened the lives of my family members, placing a gun in Kenya’s mouth and threatening to kill both him and our mom if he didn’t come up with the money to replace some drugs that were mishandled.

Driven by my fear of losing not only my mom, but also a second brother to gun violence, I took matters into my own hands.

In 1999, I was convicted of first-degree homicide, and received a 60-year sentence.

Sometimes, our criminal justice system convicts the wrong person entirely. Sometimes, it convicts the correct person, but that person refuses to take responsibility for their actions, won’t change their ways, or can’t.

This isn’t one of those times.

I have long taken responsibility for my actions and done everything asked of me to prove I’ve changed my ways. And at 50 years old today, I’m far past the typical age at which people (statistically) stop committing crimes, research has shown. Yet under Virginia’s current parole laws, I’ll be eighty-five years old before I’m eligible for release, regardless of the circumstances that landed me there or the work I’ve put into my rehabilitation.

Kermit Williams (right) with his brother, Kenya Williams (left), and his goddaughter / Kenya Williams’ daughter, Jada Williams (center). Photo credit: Hattie Williams

Unequal Punishment For Equal Crimes

In 1994, Gov. George Allen — before he had even officially been sworn in — called a special session of Virginia’s General Assembly, during which legislators passed the first of a series of so-called “truth-in-sentencing” laws. These laws eliminated parole for anyone convicted of a felony and severely reduced the amount of time a person could earn off their sentence for good behavior.

Under these new laws, people arrested, charged, tried, and convicted in Virginia on or after January 1, 1995 automatically receive longer sentences than those who committed the same or similar crimes before this date (Va. Code 53.1-165.1).

Since Virginia’s “truth-in-sentencing” laws passed, average sentence lengths in the state have skyrocketed to 18 years, up 20% in the past decade alone, according to JPI. And with parole off the table, “the average time served for people sentenced under truth-in-sentencing is 91 months, with an average of 80 months remaining on their term, or at least 15 years in prison,” JPI found.

As of 2021, 17% of Virginia’s incarcerated population — myself included — is serving a “virtual life” sentence (50 years or longer), meaning that even many people who weren’t sentenced to life in prison will, in reality, be in prison for most of their lives.

While these laws technically only eliminated parole for those sentenced in 1995 or later, in practice, they’ve also harmed those sentenced before the laws went into effect. For the 2,727 parole-eligible individuals still incarcerated in Virginia who were sentenced pre-1995, the average time served is 277 months, more than 23 years, according to JPI.

Hard Work Pays Off?

Prior to the abolishment of parole in Virginia, a person could also earn early release through Good Conduct Allowances (GCA) by exhibiting good behavior, attaining educational and vocational certificates, or gaining employment while incarcerated. GCAs under this system earned a person up to 30 days off their sentence for every 30 days served. 

But under the current Earned Sentence Credits (ESC) system, anyone convicted of a felony — even if they exhibit good behavior, attain educational and vocational certificates, and gain employment — must still serve at least 85% of their original sentence (or 4.5 days for every 30 days served). At this rate, I will be 82 years old before I’m eligible to be released from prison, making my sentence a “virtual life sentence.”

I have been in prison for more than 25 years. In that time, I’ve completed more than 20 rehabilitation programs.

These have included: Victim Impact, where I developed empathy for those I harmed by learning about the experiences of victims and their families; Restorative Justice, a program where the offender and victims meet (with the victims’ consent), in an effort to give the offender a chance to acknowledge the harm caused and give the victims closure; and in Thinking For A Change, I had the opportunity to imagine what decisions I could have made other than the one that landed me in prison.

Last year, I participated in an abolition journalism cohort with writers on the inside and outside whose stories are shifting the narratives toward healing, justice, and collective liberation. I’ve also earned my General Education Diploma and created a nonprofit foundation that works with young adults in underserved communities at risk of incarceration to teach them conflict resolution and dialogue skills, explore career paths, and increase their civic engagement.

Kermit Williams (right) with his grandmother Julia Harris (left). Photo credit: Hattie Williams

Yet, despite all of the rehabilitation programs and goals I’ve completed, like many others incarcerated with me, I’m still denied a second chance by Virginia’s policymakers and Department of Corrections, which both continue to focus on punishment for punishment’s sake, whether or not the people they claim to be rehabilitating behave like saints or sinners.

Breaking The Color Barrier

From start to finish, Virginia’s criminal “justice” policies also disproportionately target Black people.

First, the system incarcerates Black people at higher rates in the first place. As of 2021, 247 out of every 100,000 white Virginians were incarcerated in prisons, while that rate was more than four times as high — 1,020 out of every 100,000 — for Black Virginians, according to Prison Policy Initiative]. Put another way, whites account for 61% of Virginia’s population, but only 42% of its prison population, while Blacks account for just 19% of the state’s population but a staggering 54% of the prison population.

Black people are also sentenced more harshly than white people. On average, Black people receive sentences 62 months longer for the same offense, according to the Justice Policy Institute. And when it comes to the “mandatory minimum” offenses created by the laws passed in the 1990s, the average sentence is 38% longer for Black people.

These racial inequities apply to parole, as well.

“In the first nine months of 2021, [Virginia’s] parole board denied more than 2,000 applicants, 60 percent of whom were Black,” according to JPI’s report, which noted that 69% of denials were among people 55 years and older — the group least likely to recidivate.

Reimagining Rehabilitation

Virginia’s current approach to keeping our communities safe clearly isn’t working. So, where do we go from here?

States like Wyoming have put various policies in place to make parole hearings fair. Others like California, and Washington, have had success with “second look” legislation, which lets incarcerated individuals petition a judge to reduce their sentence after they’ve served 10 years. And researchers like those at the Robina Institute have identified many different evidence-based ways to bring parole policies into the future.

These states have proven that we can — and should — reexamine outdated, ineffective, and unjust parole systems.

For the past three years, several forward-looking Virginia lawmakers have made bipartisan efforts to pass second look legislation in Virginia. Their latest effort, a bill introduced by Democratic State Senator R. Creigh Deeds and Delegate Rae Cousins, would have allowed currently incarcerated individuals to ask a court to suspend or reduce their sentence — a comprehensive and meaningful reform that would have more equitably afforded incarcerated individuals an opportunity at a second chance.

However, after the State Senate approved the bill, the House Appropriations Committee voted to carry it over to 2025, eliminating the possibility it passes this year — the third year in a row they’ve taken this step backwards.

Hold me accountable, not hostage

Defenders of Virginia’s current parole system have simply run out of arguments to justify its continued existence.

This system is inhumane, inequitable, ineffective, and inefficient. As I hope those reading this piece now realize, abandoning the use of parole in Virginia was never about doing a better job of “reforming” people. And Virginia’s low recidivism rate doesn’t prove — like these defenders claim — that our extreme prison sentences are responsible for reforming and getting people out of prison.

It proves that they’re responsible for keeping people in prison.

Virginians deserve public safety policies that are fair and consistent in how they hold people accountable — not written in ways that allow certain people to earn a second chance while excluding others based on arbitrary factors like when they committed a crime.

And, more importantly, as Virginians, we need to rethink our underlying beliefs about why and how we incarcerate our neighbors.

We need to learn from the brilliant people in Virginia and beyond who are developing restorative justice frameworks based on legitimate, up-to-date evidence — not outdated and biased statistics produced by law enforcement agencies to advance their own agendas. These emerging frameworks are actually designed to care for our community members and help people thrive, both those harmed and those who have caused harm — not destroy and divide our communities for the benefit of self-interested politicians and corporations currently profiting off the prison-industrial complex.

I support people like myself taking accountability for causing harm to our communities, as well as systems that help us make amends. But 25 years — a quarter of a century — in prison and 20 rehabilitation programs later, I am convinced that VADOC isn’t trying to hold me accountable, it’s holding me hostage.

This piece includes additional reporting and editing by Tyler Sonnemaker.

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