Virginia Democrats advance bills allowing prisoners to shorten sentences with good behavior

By: - September 3, 2020 12:05 am

The Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Some Virginia inmates could see their sentences cut nearly in half under legislation aimed at rewarding good behavior and participation in prison rehabilitation programs.

Bills advanced by Democrats in the House and Senate would dramatically expand the state’s existing earned sentence credit program, which currently caps sentence reductions tied to good behavior at 15 percent.

Supporters call the proposals an essential step toward rehabilitating prisoners before they’re released. But victim groups, Republicans and some Democrats have expressed unease with the breadth and scope of the proposals — and significant debate remains over whether violent criminals should be allowed to participate.

Earned sentence credits and the abolition of parole

Virginia’s earned sentence credit program, a variation of which exists in most states, dates back to 1995 when the state abolished parole during a nationwide wave of tough-on-crime reforms. With annual parole hearings out of the picture, the program was envisioned as a way to incentivize good behavior by inmates.

Supporters of the proposed expansion say the current system is too limited to offer a meaningful focus on reform and rehabilitation.

“When we expand earned sentence credits, we are giving them an incentive to work hard, to build job skills, to treat substance abuse, to seek an education,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who proposed the legislation in the Senate. “We can release inmates who are bitter, have no skills and feel hopeless or we can do the right thing and treat people like human beings.”

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, who is carrying the House version of the bill, noted that Virginia’s current credit of 15 percent, which equates to 4.5 days earned per 30 days served, is low compared to many other states, including Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and South Carolina, which all allow inmates to earn a maximum of half off their sentences, according to Prison Fellowship.

The two lawmakers also cite studies that found states that expanded earned sentence credit programs reduced both recidivism rates and the costs of operating their prison system.

“There are some very, very, very conservative states that already do this,” Scott said.

The better the behavior, the shorter the sentence

Under the legislation proposed by Boysko and Scott, inmates who receive no more than one minor infraction and participate in all assigned work and rehabilitation programs would see their sentence credits escalate yearly from 13 days earned for every 30 days served to a maximum after five years of one day earned for every day served.

That means an inmate with an unblemished record who was sentenced to five years could expect to serve 64 percent of the sentence, or a little more than three years and two months. An inmate sentenced to 10 years would serve 58 percent of the sentence and an inmate sentenced to 20 years would serve 54 percent of the sentence.

Inmates who don’t meet those behavioral or programmatic requirements would earn credits at lower rates: 7.5 days for every 30 days served in the case of inmates who “require improvement in not more than one area,” 3.5 days for inmates who “require significant improvement in two or more areas,” and zero days for inmates who don’t participate in assigned programs or who cause security problems.

While the House and Senate versions of the bill agree on the maximum and minimum credits that should be awarded, they remain far apart on who should qualify to earn them.

In other states, practices vary considerably, according to the State Crime Commission, which studied the legislation. They found 20 states exclude people sentenced to life or life without parole, 20 states exclude people convicted of some violent felonies, 17 states exclude sex offenders and 11 state have no exclusions.

Correctional officers stand at the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center on Nov. 10, 2009, near Jarratt, Virginia. Greensville is home to the state’s execution chamber. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Should violent criminals be allowed to participate?

In the Senate, Boysko’s version of the bill excludes most people convicted of a violent crime — a provision she says she doesn’t personally support but viewed as necessary to win support from her colleagues in the chamber, who advanced the legislation from the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services on a party-line vote.

That excludes 17,964 inmates, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections, which estimated 2,831 prisoners would be eligible for release in the first year the bill is enacted under a provision that applies the new credit system retroactively.

Scott’s version, which the House Courts of Justice Committee signed-off on Wednesday, includes significantly fewer restrictions, barring only people convicted of capital murder and most acts of violence involving a minor victim.

People convicted of other serious crimes would only be excluded if it was their second offense, including people convicted of rape, first degree murder or lower, commercial sex trafficking and production of child porn.

The Department of Corrections has not yet provided an estimate for how many inmates would qualify under Scott’s proposal. But in response to an earlier version of the bill that included fewer exclusions, it estimated nearly 7,000 inmates would be eligible for early release in the first year it went into effect.

Scott said during a Tuesday meeting of the State Crime Commission that he was open to suggestions, but only to a point.

“I don’t want it to be the very watered-down version that passed the Senate where it’s only jaywalkers getting the earned sentence credits,” he said.

Victims groups argue to exclude sex offenders

Scott’s proposal received significant pushback in the House, especially from sexual assault and rape survivors.

“Prosecutors don’t like to put young victims on the stand so a lot of times these offenders get grace on the front end when they drop charges or offer a plea,” said Robert Buswell, who said he was abused as a child in the ‘70s. “I don’t think it’s fair for them to earn credits on the back end.”

Numerous women described the fear they faced when their attackers were released, asking lawmakers to make rapists ineligible. Several Democratic members of the committee agreed. Del. Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, voted against the bill, citing her experience working as an advocate for abuse victims and saying she could only support it with amendments.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, declined to vote altogether. And other members of the party said they were voting on the legislation, but only with the expectation that it would be amended as it continues through the legislative process, including Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, who said he’s opposed to applying the credits retroactively and worried they might be “overly generous.”

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, broadly derided the legislation as an appalling and dangerous plan. “Republicans believe that killers, rapists and child molesters should serve their full sentences,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “The vote today was an insult to crime victims and their families.”

Others call for all prisoners to be included

While lawmakers appear to be moving toward including more restrictions rather than fewer, dozens of advocates urged lawmakers to take a more progressive approach and not give in to what they described as fear mongering.

Family members of inmates argued that, regardless of the crime, all inmates should be encouraged to better themselves before they’re released. Former prisoners worried creating two classes of inmates — one with a strong incentive to behave and one without — would make prisons less safe.

Donald Keck, who worked for years in Virginia prisons as a psychologist, said research clearly shows the best way to improve public safety is to improve offenders while they’re incarcerated.

“One thing that my experience as a psychologist in the correctional system has shown me is that any behavior that is rewarded you will get more of,” he said. “The greater the reward, the more of the behavior you’ll get.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.