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Twelve years ago, after her son had a run-in with the law, Carla Peterson of Vienna became acquainted with the Virginia prison system.

“My son is now an engineer, working in Manassas,” she said. “He had all the family support in the world and he thrived, and he’s fine, but there are many, many people who do not have that support.”

During her son’s incarceration, Peterson, now 71, became involved with Virginia Cure, a nonprofit whose focus is on the Virginia criminal justice and prison systems and the people whose lives are affected by them. In 2009, she became the group’s director.

The organization recently got behind legislation proposed by Del. Mark Sickles (D-Alexandria) that requires the Virginia Parole Board to give what are called “old-law” inmates “specific reasons” for being denied parole. The bill became law July 1. Another law requires that the reasons be posted online.

Parole in Virginia was abolished in 1995, but according to Virginia Parole Board Chairman William W. Muse, there are still about 3,500 inmates in Virginia — called “old-law” inmates — who were grandfathered in, and are still eligible for parole.

“That number is actually increasing,” said Muse. “Many old-law inmates have not yet reached their eligibility dates yet. We estimate the total number will increase to 5,500 by 2016.”

But according to Peterson, many of these old-law prisoners are not getting a fair shake.

“First of all, there are only five parole examiners for all those eligible inmates,” she said. “That is not nearly enough to properly examine each case that comes before them. Is it any wonder that the number of inmates eligible for parole who actually get it is less than 4 percent?”

According to Muse, of the five parole examiners, only two are actually full-time employees. The other three are part-time.

“Some of the interviews are done in person, and others are done through video-conferencing,” he said.

Muse also agrees that Peterson’s assertion — that, on average, approximately 4 percent of old-law inmates are granted parole each year — is accurate.

“We decided 3,151 cases in 2012 and parole was granted to 161,” he said. “But you have to remember that 95 percent of those eligible are violent offenders, and very few are appropriate for parole despite being eligible. We look not only at whether they have been rehabilitated, but also at the nature of the offense.”

Peterson says that is exactly the issue.

“Del. Sickles’ new law is a small victory in that now specific reasons for denial can be documented and reviewed. I think that with this law now in effect, certain patterns will become evident,” she said.

“Prisoners who have been rehabilitated and demonstrate good behavior should be able to return to society. They are not monsters, just people who made a mistake earlier in their lives. Some crimes are heinous and some people should never be paroled. We are not advocating for that. But those who have paid their debt to society, demonstrated good behavior, and have been rehabilitated, deserve the right to have their lives returned to them.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com