State Senator David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke) has introduced a bill to make individual Virginia Parole Board members’ votes public records and open to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
“The parole board has significant authority over individual Virginians’ liberty and the Commonwealth’s public safety,” Suetterlein said. “And the public gets to know, when someone is charged with a crime, who the police officer is that arrested the person. Who the prosecutor who pursued the criminal charges was. Who the judge that oversaw the case was. Who the appellate court judges that upheld the cases were. And then the parole board has the power to reduce that sentence effectively and their action is done in private. Their votes are not recorded, which is most unusual. I was not able to find any other board in Virginia where their actions and their individual votes are not recorded.”
Suetterlein’s SB 5, pre-filed for the 2022 General Assembly, is the third time he’s introduced the bill. Suetterlein first introduced a version of the bill in the August 2020 special session, amid revelations from leaked reports alleging the parole board improperly paroled Vincent Martin.
“The parole board used its immense power in the last few years and made several questionable decisions, and during that time, the votes were unclear because they are not made public,” Suetterlein said. “They weren’t even keeping minutes of their actions.”
Suetterlein said, “The Northam administration then sought to have a series of ridiculous fiscal impact statements attached to the bill claiming that it would cost large sums of money to makes these votes public, which was absurd. So I think the votes should be made public. The Northam administration did not think they should be made public. The House Democratic leadership chose not to hear the bills.”
A 2021 fiscal impact statement found that since the bill would include any matter the board votes on, not just parole decisions, the board would need to hire two full-time employees, each earning an annual salary of $63,642, to handle FOIA requests. The Department of Corrections would also have to pay a vendor about $50,000 in a one-time cost to modify a database.
“The Board reports that data from the Department of Corrections (DOC) indicates that an average of 305 offenders per year are due to become eligible for parole beginning in FY [fiscal year] 2022 through FY 2026. Additionally, Board members also review and vote on an average of 829 pardon petitions per year,” the fiscal impact statement said. “According to the Board, the proposed legislation will require staff to manually extract each case and prepare a report based on each Board member’s vote, comments entered, and the overall decision on the particular case. Staff will then need to compile and prepare such information for either public dissemination, or for specific FOIA requests.”
Recounts for two House seats are underway, but Republicans are likely to hold the majority in the House in the upcoming session, giving Suetterlein’s bill a good chance, since Senate Democrats have supported it in the past.
Suetterlein said, “Governor-elect Youngkin has made his concerns with the parole board very clear throughout the campaign, and I’m optimistic that we can get this to his desk.”
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