parole discussion

Members of both the JMU and Harrisonburg communities attended the discussion.

The JMU Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence partnered with the Valley Justice Coalition to host guests Brian Moran and Adrianne Bennett, who led a discussion about incarceration and inmate rehabilitation in Virginia.

Moran, appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2014, currently serves as the secretary of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau while Bennett is the chairwoman of the Virginia Parole Board.

“The issues of crime and punishment are a challenge, human nature is difficult to get your arms around in the case of morality,” Moran said. “So the purpose of today is to talk about parole and sentencing decisions.”

Although the DOC is making headway in criminal justice, there’s still progress to be made, according to moderator Terry Beitzel, director of the Mahatma Gandhi Center and associate justice studies professor.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have the courage to sit at the table,’” Beitzel said. “We need to be creative.”

The war on drugs and crime in Virginia led to the decision to abolish parole in 1996. Since then, corrections workers and citizens, including Bennett, have expressed their frustration over the decision.

“The worst thing that’s ever happened to corrections and public safety is the abolishment of parole,” Bennett said. “It was a political decision that was not evidenced based whatsoever, it was done based on what the political mood in the country was at the time, and there wasn’t a lot of forethought given.”

Often times, criminal behavior is a result of mental health disorders, substance abuse, lack of education and opportunity. Both speakers discussed how the Department of Corrections rehabilitates inmates to become contributing members of society.

“Primarily, I’d talk about the mental health and stripping down into the traumatic effects that occured in their childhood and has led them to antisocial behavior and if you address those, you can change an individual,” Moran said.

The DOC has been utilizing educational programs for over 15 years, including an apprenticeship program for offenders looking to work upon release. According to Moran, almost every Virginia state prison participates in the apprenticeship program, which teaches inmates a particular trade or skill. Skills available to learn include electrical work or wastewater treatment allowing them to get jobs and lead constructive lives in the community.

These programs have shown progress through change in behavior throughout the years, as evidenced by Virginia’s recidivism rate. The recidivism rate follows the criminal activity of an offender for up to three years upon release and for the second straight year, Virginia has the lowest rate of repeat offenders in the U.S. at 22.4 percent.

At an earlier meeting precursing the event, Beitzel spoke about what he found thought provoking, recognizing the need for change to come from members of the community.

“There were several comments that were made that kind of hit home to me, one was ‘it takes time and it takes a lot of effort, but we still believe,” Beitzel said.

Contact Christian Lovallo at lovallca@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.