What Does “Life in Prison” Actually Mean in Virginia?

Everyone's heard of people who receive "life in prison" as punishment for their crimes. In this article, we'll explore what this actually means in Virginia.
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by | Last updated Jan 7, 2020 | Published on Oct 17, 2018 | Virginia Criminal Law

In Virginia, Class 1 and Class 2 felonies carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. However, this punishment is not as straightforward as it sounds.

While crimes committed after January 1st, 1995 carry a “true” sentence of life in prison, inmates incarcerated before this cutoff may be eligible for parole based on the previous laws.

In this article, we’ll talk about how this process works, and what factors can complicate it.

We’ll also go over the specifics situations in which inmates with life sentences can apply for parole.

What Charges Carry a Life Sentence in Virginia?

Guard putting keys into door in prison.

There are several criminal charges that can lead to life sentences in Virginia.

First, Virginia courts may punish any Class 1 or Class 2 felony with life imprisonment.

This generally includes violent felonies, such as murder, rape, or malicious wounding.

Second, Virginia courts also often punish violent offenses involving firearms with life imprisonment.

Finally, a previously convicted felon may also receive a life sentence for particularly severe charges related to drug trafficking.

Since 1995, Virginia courts have generally sentenced these individuals to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

While a commission was put together to study parole in 2015, their results generally supported this policy change.

For this reason, Virginia has continued sentencing people to life without parole ever since.

However, for inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed before 1995 the original laws still apply.

Since these individuals became eligible for parole after 15-30 years in prison, most can already apply to re-enter society.

What is Parole?

Group of people in white shirts planting trees, community service.

At its most basic level, parole is a program that lets inmates serve out the remainder of their sentences outside of prison.

They may do so long as they follow certain guidelines, like reporting to a parole officer or showing good behavior.

In Virginia, most inmates are eligible for parole after serving a significant portion of their total sentence. However, this isn’t an automatic process.

Instead, inmates seeking parole must go before Virginia’s notoriously stringent parole board.

At least three of the five members of the board must then agree to grant the inmate parole.

Further, there are actually two different types of parole in Virginia: discretionary and mandatory.

When thinking of parole, most people think of the discretionary type.

This is where an inmate gets out of prison early and serves the remainder of their sentence under the careful watch of a parole officer.

On the other hand, mandatory parole is essentially an additional sentence tacked onto the end of a normal prison sentence.

Mandatory parole is often used as a way of keeping track of former inmates after their release.

For example, a drug offender might serve a yearlong prison sentence and then have to report to a parole officer for a few months to prove they’re remaining drug-free.

In either case, if the board grants parole to an inmate, that inmate needs to abide by certain rules or risk additional penalties.

These rules can vary, but generally include frequent reports to a parole officer, drug testing, and even sometimes counseling sessions.

The parole board may also issue other restrictions, such as forbidding an inmate from traveling outside the state.

Discretionary Parole in Virginia

As mentioned earlier in this article, Virginia abolished the normal form of discretionary parole in 1995.

Instead, inmates must now serve a set amount of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

On average, an inmate must serve at least 85% of their original sentence before being able to apply for parole.

However, as a result of these changes, prisoners sentenced to life in prison no longer have a chance for parole.

In this way, life sentences have truly become imprisonment for life.

Only inmates committed before the 1995 cutoff may still apply for discretionary parole.

Discretionary Parole for Life Sentences in Virginia

As stated, the rules change slightly for inmates who are serving life sentences.

Specifically, there are a few specific limits placed on life sentences for crimes committed before this 1995 deadline.

The three most important go as follows:

  • An inmate found guilty of a Class 2 felony must serve at least 15 years of their sentence before being eligible for parole.
  • If the sentence was for either a Class 1 felony, the first degree murder of a child younger than 8 years old, or another listed exception, they must instead serve 25 years before applying for parole.
  • If a inmate is serving two or more life sentences concurrently, they will be eligible for parole after 20 years of incarceration, or 30 if any of the sentences was for a Class 1 felony.

As an added note, if a person is given a life sentence after already being paroled for a previous life sentence, they are not eligible for parole.

Further, any individual found guilty of three or more felony charges is also not eligible for parole.

Additionally, even if an inmate serves the times noted above, there is no guarantee that the parole board will grant them parole. 

In fact, the parole board’s approval rate over the past few years has only averaged between 3% and 7%.

Remember, parole is given out at the sole discretion of the parole board, so the petitioner must prove that their release will not prove a danger to the community.

Further, remember that these numbers only apply to crimes committed before 1995.

Any life sentence given after the 1995 deadline counts as a true life sentence.

How Does the Virginia Parole Board Decide Who Gets Parole?

The Virginia Parole Board considers a variety of factors when deciding who receives parole.

Generally, they focus on disqualifying factors, or reasons why an inmate shouldn’t be released.

To give a sample of a few requirements they’re looking for, here are a few of the most common reasons for denying an inmate parole:

  • The board almost always denies parole to inmates who exhibit violent or non-compliant behavior in prison.
  • The board will likely deny parole to inmates who display a history of substance abuse while imprisoned.
  • In addition to the inmate’s behavior in prison, the board will consider the severity of the original offense, as well as testimony from related individuals such as victims or their families.
  • The board may also deny parole on the basis of an inmate’s non-participation in educational or work programs.

However, even outside of these disqualifying reasons, the parole board may deny parole for any reason.

Generally, they base this decision on whether or not they believe the inmate is still a danger to the community.

What is Geriatric Parole?

Senior sad man leans on a cane while sitting on sofa

As a side note to what we’ve discussed above, Virginia Code includes provisions for the conditional release of geriatric prisoners.

Sometimes called “geriatric parole,” this option is only available to prisoners above the age of 60.

This works similarly to petitioning for regular parole.

However, the board will take age and any health issues into consideration alongside the inmate’s institutional record.

This tends to make geriatric parole a better option for those inmates who qualify for it.

Just like normal parole, the approval rating for geriatric parole is incredibly low.

In fact, the approval rate for geriatric parole averages out to only 4.7%.

Conclusion

Hands through jail cell bars.

For most inmates in Virginia, “life in prison” truly means imprisonment for life.

However, for inmates serving sentences for crimes committed before the January 1st, 1995 cutoff, the future is less certain.

In fact, many of these individuals are coming up for parole due to reaching the required 15-30 year waiting period, or as an effect of geriatric parole.

While the justice of life imprisonment has been called into question several times over the past few years, the policy has largely remained unchanged since the 1990s.

For this reason, “life in prison” will, for the foreseeable future, continue to result in a lifetime in jail for most Virginia inmates.

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Jessica Wildeus

Jessica primarily assists clients with criminal and family law needs. She is committed to a client-centered practice and to equipping her clients with the knowledge they need to navigate the legal system effectively. Read More.

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