Washington Post: A reckless prison reform

The Feb. 20 front-page article about efforts to undo parole and sentencing reforms in Louisiana, based on the highly unlikely premise that our rapidly aging prison populations will repeat their crimes even after decades in prison, struck close to home [“La. GOP works to undo prison system changes”]. In Virginia, George Allen’s 1994 signature campaign issue was to abolish parole, in favor of “truth in sentencing.” The actual “truth” back then, as future Justice Antonin Scalia testified to Congress as chair of the Administrative Conference of the United States in 1973, was that courts heavied up on sentences to accommodate the then-realistic chances of parole — anticipating “that a prisoner who demonstrates his desire for rehabilitation will not serve the maximum term or anything approaching the maximum.”


The real tragedy for those still incarcerated since before 1995 in Virginia, who are theoretically eligible for parole following such lengthy sentences, is that parole is granted in only about 3 percent of all applications (e.g., 78 of 3,320 in 2022). And the ironic “truth” is that as early as 2009, 21 percent of Virginia’s parole-eligible inmates had already served longer for the same offense than the tough-on-crime, truth-in-sentencing guidelines adopted pursuant to Mr. Allen’s approach. That more than half of Virginia’s state inmates are Black makes this tragedy even more painful for all of us.


Louisiana was the prison capital of the world until criminal justice reforms were passed into law seven years ago, saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars and resulting in less crime and recidivism. That makes it both surprising and disappointing to read about Louisiana potentially rolling back prison reforms in a special session.


Most people serving a prison sentence will eventually return to their communities. The question is: In what condition do we want them returning? Among the most successful reforms passed in Louisiana were earned credits for those completing evidenced-based prison programs such as obtaining a high school equivalency diploma, vocational skills training and drug treatment. Most states nationwide use earned credits as a key public safety tool to reduce recidivism.


How a person spends time in prison should matter. There is plenty of data to demonstrate that people who are equipped with the skills necessary to enter the workforce after incarceration are less likely to commit crimes.


I spent five decades as a prison warden for four different facilities, served as the head of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and am a past president of the American Correctional Association. Without doubt, I believe prisons are necessary — but they’re not the best solution for everyone. Rolling back successful reforms is reckless and expensive. 


Louisianans deserve a criminal justice system that punishes criminal behavior and prepares people who have served their time to reenter society with the skills to be productive neighbors.


Gary Mohr, Chillicothe, Ohio

The writer was a member of the Governor’s Commission on Parole Review in Virginia in 2015.


This letter to the editor can be read here