NORFOLK, Va. — House Bill 1689 could lead to a big change for three hundred prisoners in Virginia. If passed by the Commonwealth's general assembly, it could give people with lengthy prison time a chance to be released.
Before 1995, for example, a prisoner with a life sentence could be granted parole after 13 years. Once parole was abolished that option went away. But judges couldn’t inform jurors about the absence of parole during sentencing until 2000.
Now two people, an inmate's wife and a former inmate, are hoping to push legislators to fix the parole gap.
Once parole abolished, prisoners had to serve nearly every day of their sentence, no matter how long.
That’s the case for Kari Anderson’s husband Lemar Anderson behind bars for murder and robbery. A crime he says he didn’t commit.
“My husband is serving his 20th year of a 130-year sentence. He has a numerical sentence and the jury did ask during his trial if there was parole in Virginia and the judge was not allowed to answer,” Anderson said.
Lemar Anderson was 21 when he was convicted in 1998, three years after parole was abolished and two years before judges were allowed to inform the jury about the absence of parole.
She believes jurors gave longer sentences thinking people like Anderson would be paroled after just a few years, not realizing after 1995 life meant life.
“We pull up to more people and say did you know there is no parole in Virginia and they say no I didn’t know that,” Darrell Brisbon said.
Brisbon was caught in the parole gap, too. He served 18 of his 20-year sentence. He believes it would have been much shorter had jurors known there was no longer parole. Now, he’s fighting for everyone else he left behind.
“They can be rehabilitated, especially if they’ve done it at a young age. This new policy is not effective nor is it productive,” Brisbon said.
Brisbon and Anderson are teaming up to speak on behalf of the prisoners still stuck in the parole gap.
The bill Anderson and Brisbon are hoping makes it through the Virginia General Assembly and goes on to become law - HB 1689 — would only make parole a possibility for those prisoners between 1995 and 2000 they would still have to prove they are rehabilitated and earn their parole.
“I forget the quote but it simply defies reason that the jury shouldn’t be instructed so I mean like I said it was important enough to change it for those from that day forward, but we are still working on those who were the in between,” Anderson said.
They say they’re working to inform the community and make a change that is long overdue.
“There just going to open up the gates and all the prisoners are going to come storming out and that’s just not the case because if they go up for parole then they have to show that they are worthy of it,” Anderson said.