CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- A former Albemarle County resident who committed serious crimes when he was 18 years old is asking the governor for clemency after serving half of a 32-year sentence that was twice what the sentencing guidelines recommended.
In 2002, Jesse Crosson was a recent high school graduate with a rapidly worsening drug problem. His mother, Nancy Kern, had tried to intervene, but by Thanksgiving that year, she felt helpless. The child she'd raised, kind and eager to fit in, was now out of control.
"He drove somebody's motorcycle to my house and should not have been driving,” Kern said. “I was really worried about him, and he just wouldn't let me do anything for him. "
Things got worse, quickly. A week later, high on drugs, Crosson and three other people committed a home invasion and robbery. And a week after that, he got into an altercation that ended when he fired shots into a car that was chasing him. He hit and injured the two men in the car.
"The drugs just turned him into someone that he wasn't," Kern said.
Crosson pleaded guilty to multiple felonies. Sentencing guidelines called for 11 to 16 years, but Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Paul Peatross doubled that time to 32 years.
"I just said, he's going to go bad,” Kern recalled. “He'll never be able to make it."
That’s not what happened after Crosson went to prison. In fact, he turned his life around.
“I would say the transformation really occurred, one, in taking accountability for what I had done and saying, ‘Ok, here I am. This is the bed that I made. Now, how am I going to live best in it, and how am I going to do the best with this,” Crosson said in phone interview from Buckingham Correctional Center where he is serving his sentence. “And two was just reaching out and finding the resources and finding the people who were willing to take the time and energy to help me."
While he's been incarcerated, Crosson has earned a college degree in psychology. He's trained as a cook and electrician. He teaches yoga and Spanish. And he's a mentor to other inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues.
None of that may help shorten his sentence though because Crosson committed his crimes after former Governor George Allen abolished parole in 1995. There's now only one way for Crosson to be released before the end of his sentence: a petition for clemency to the governor. And that's a long shot.
"It's truly a plea,” Crosson said. “It's saying, ‘Hey, your Honor, I plea to you, based upon all these things that I've done, based upon all the things we understand, I just hope that you will consider this and you will consider what's best for the Commonealth."
Crosson's clemency petition has a website. Dozens of people have written letters of support. And Crosson says he's not the only one in this situation.
"You see young guys, you see middle-aged guys, you see guys all the time getting 30 and 40 and 50 years and basically having no alternative other than either waiting until they're 60 or 65 years old and applying for geriatric parole or waiting for clemency and hoping the governor will recognize the changes they've made and things that they're doing in their life," Crosson said.
His case and others like it have led some in the legal field to say Virginia should reinstate parole.
Attorney Steve Rosenfield is a proponent of parole reinstatement. He's represented several Virginia inmates in their appeals.
"It should be recognized that the experiment of abolishing parole has failed," Rosenfield said.
According to data compiled by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, the rate of incarceration in Virginia increased by 64 percent between 1994 and 2015. Rosenfield says that increase puts a financial burden on taxpayers.
"It's so much less expensive to be able to provide extra counseling and probation and parole officers if prisoners can be released long before their sentence has run," Rosenfield said.
He also says the number of clemency appeals has soared since parole was abolished.
"We now have this governor and his predecessors inundated with requests for relief from prisoners with lengthy sentences who have performed exceedingly well while in prison," he said.
Just how inundated is hard to know. In an email, the Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson says clemency data is confidential and protected by executive privilege.
And Governor Ralph Northam also wouldn't give specifics on the clemency process when he was in Charlottesville earlier this month.
"There is a very large workload, but they are working day in and day out to address that very issue,” Northam said.
George Allen did not respond to a request for comment on his current position on parole, but according to the Washington Post, in a 2015 Facebook post, Allen said reinstating parole would be a mistake. Another Republican lawmaker in Virginia agrees.
Delegate Rob Bell says juries and judges should know how much time a person will actually serve when they hand down a sentence.
"I think they're in the best place to decide how much time a certain crime is worth and parole, of course, undercuts that," Bell said.
Bell sits on the Courts of Justice Committee and the Crime Commission. He says having prisoners serve their full terms has helped Virginia have the lowest recidivism rate in the country. And he believes the clemency appeals process is the right way to consider prisoners' requests for early release.
"There will be cases that for some particular reason the governor can say, there is some new evidence I didn't know about, or it may be right for 99 percent but this one case is not right,” Bell said. “That's why we have clemency."
He also says the parole process is unfair to victims.
"They're the ones that have to go to the parole board, and they're the ones that end up arguing that the person should still stay in prison,” Bell said.
For Crosson and others serving lengthy sentences, it's not just a policy debate about parole. It's their lives. Crosson agrees that victims must be considered, but he says parole gives inmates some hope for early release and helps their rehabilitation. And he says it also balances public safety with the cost of incarceration.
"Parole is a system that offers the opportunity to give out lengthy sentences if they're in here for serious or violent offenses and basically hold them until they no longer pose a danger," Crosson said.
For more information on Crosson's case and his clemency petition, click on the link in the Related Links box.