Attorney General Jason Miyares details ‘parole-granting frenzy’

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Attorney General Jason Miyares speaks at a TRIAD re-launch event in Pulaski recently. (Danielle Reid/The Patriot)

By Madison Hirneisen

(The Center Square) – A report released Wednesday by Attorney General Jason Miyares asserts the Virginia Parole Board and former Chair Adrianne Bennett violated state law and board procedures when granting parole to dozens of inmates in the spring of 2020.

The results of a year-long investigation by the attorney general’s office, detailed in a 69-page report made public Wednesday, overviews actions taken by the Virginia Parole Board in March and April 2020, a time Attorney General Jason Miyares characterized as a “parole-granting frenzy that endangered public safety.”

Virginia Parole Board releases spiked to the highest level in March 2020, when it granted release to 95 offenders – the “highest number of releases in a single month ever,” according to Miyares. Of those 95 released, 4 were convicted of capital murder, 31 were convicted of first-degree murder, 11 were convicted of rape, and 33 were convicted of robbery, according to the attorney general’s report.

The increased rate of releases coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the parole board attributed as the reason for the “accelerated pace of parole grants,” according to the report. However, interviews with officials revealed the parole board was “not given authority to release offenders due to the COVID-19 situation,” according to the report.

Miyares’ report accuses the parole board of violating Virginia law 83 times by failing to contact victims of crimes before making a parole decision about an offender. Existing Virginia law requires the parole board to “endeavor diligently” to contact victims before making a decision to release an inmate on discretionary parole. In March 2020 alone, 63 of the board’s 95 release decisions violated this requirement, according to the report.

Additionally, the report asserts the parole board failed to notify local attorneys in the commonwealth about release decisions within 21 days, as required by law, 66 times between March and April 2020.

“What happened here was wrong,” Miyares said Wednesday. “What happened here was a clear abuse of power. What happened here was the epitome of putting criminals first and victims last.”

The report also outlines several allegations against former parole board Chair Adrianne Bennett, who left the board in April 2020 to serve as a judge in the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

The report alleges Bennett violated parole board procedures and state code by granting early discharge from parole supervision to 137 offenders convicted of violent crimes, including those convicted of capital or first-degree murder – during her final days on the board.

The report also asserts Bennett “falsified” three parole discharge records, and accuses Bennett of “unlawfully modifying” Virginia’s “three strikes” parole ineligibility statute, which states the punishment for three violent felony convictions is life in prison. According to the attorney general’s investigation, Bennett was alerted by former Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran that any changes to the “three strikes” policy would have to come through the legislature and be signed by the governor, but the report says she “still went on to apply her unauthorized ‘three strikes’ policy.”

The report states Bennett’s use of the modified and unauthorized “three strikes” policy “resulted in the freedom of five offenders who went on to commit new violent felonies against Virginians.”

Miyares told reporters Wednesday if a statute of limitations had not expired, Bennett could have been “charged criminally for falsifying official records and violating court orders.”

“Judge Bennett’s brazen abuse of her power put Virginians’ safety at risk so that she could promote the criminal first, victim last agenda without regard to the victims or their safety,” Miyares said.

In response to the attorney general’s report, Attorney Diane Toscano, who joined the legal defense of Bennett over the course of the investigation, issued a statement to The Center Square saying, Miyares “cherry picked a time period for scrutiny which happens to have taken place during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.”

“In all cases of parole, Judge Bennett was but one vote of the board,” Toscano said. “This report grossly targeted her. Judge Bennett is a dedicated public servant who has served with distinction on the bench, on the parole board, and as a respected attorney in the Virginia Beach legal community for decades. No attempt to vilify her changes that.”

Report recommends legislative action, policy changes

Miyares’ report details a range of legislative and policy recommendations as a result of the investigation.

On the legislative side, the report recommends the General Assembly amend existing law to address a range of issues. The report recommends amendments to existing law to provide public access to parole hearings, require the parole board to seek and consider victim input before casting any vote to release an offender, and increase the number of the parole board’s full-time voting members.

The report also recommends myriad changes to parole board policy, including that the board require each appointed member to adhere to a uniform code of ethics, update its administrative produce to clearly define “endeavor diligently,” and implement administrative procedures requiring the board to make efforts to obtain current victim contact information when an offender first becomes eligible for discretionary parole.