State prison officials estimate that more than 14,000 inmates in Virginia could see their release dates moved up under legislation awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.
The bill, backed by General Assembly Democrats and unanimously opposed by GOP lawmakers, would let inmates cut their sentences by a third as long as they weren’t convicted of certain violent offenses, follow prison rules and participate in counseling and education programs.
Supporters framed the legislation as an important reform that will encourage inmates to better themselves behind bars, though the measure’s sponsors expressed disappointment the original proposal was significantly narrowed as it made its way through the General Assembly in order to win support from more conservative members of the Democratic caucus.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who carried the Senate’s version of the legislation. “I had hoped that it would be a little more generous in giving people the opportunity for a second chance but some of my colleagues in the House were not as comfortable with some of the Senate proposals.”
The final bill lawmakers sent to Northam sets a flat rate of 15 days off for every 30 days served, which would reduce a 10-year sentence to a little over six and a half years. Under current law, inmates can earn a maximum of 4.5 days off for every 30 days served — a credit that will still be available to inmates excluded from the new program.
It also includes a delayed enactment date of January 2022 to give the Department of Corrections time to reprogram its computer system.
As initially proposed by Boysko and Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, the bill would have excluded inmates convicted of a handful of serious violent offenses including first- and second-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and rape.
That list was expanded considerably during the legislative process to include most violent criminal acts. It also excludes people convicted of a second felony offense of animal fighting, acts of violence by mob, burglary, possession of child pornography, cross burning and others. (See the bill text for a full list of exclusions.)
The restrictions narrowed the number of prisoners who would currently qualify for the credits from 32,000 to 14,693, of which DOC says 1,380 would be eligible for immediate release because the bill requires the credits to be applied retroactively, according to impact statements prepared by the state.
Sexual assault and rape victims were especially vocal in their advocacy against the bill, arguing no sex offenders should be able to earn sentence credits under the program — a request lawmakers accepted with the exception of excluding people found with child pornography only after a second offense.
On the other side of the debate, criminal justice reform groups had urged lawmakers not to exclude any inmates based on the crimes they committed, arguing most will eventually be released with or without the program and that it is in the state’s interest to encourage them to participate in prison educational and counseling programs.
“I don’t know how much it’s going to do to reduce Virginia’s overall prison population the way it’s written with all the exclusions,” said Gin Carter, who founded the Humanization Project, which is dedicated to telling prisoners’ personal stories. “We’re bummed it didn’t include everyone, but as far as Virginia goes, this is a huge step.”
Republican lawmakers unanimously opposed the bill, arguing it would gut the truth in sentencing laws Virginia established when the state abolished parole in 1994. The lower level of credits currently available to inmates is working fine, they said, citing statistics that show inmates released from Virginia prisons have among the lowest recidivism rates in the country.
They also questioned why some crimes didn’t make the list of exclusions, like involuntary manslaughter, a common charge in DUI fatalities.
“Truth in sentencing has been a success by any metric,” Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania, argued on the House floor. “It’s been good for victims of crimes and it’s been good for our society.”
The bill’s patrons countered that Virginia’s current earned sentence credit program is meager compared to states like Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and South Carolina, which offer earned sentence credits up to 50 percent. “There are some very, very, very conservative states that already do this,” Scott said.
But the legislation also made some Democrats uneasy. Boysko and Scott both scaled their drafts back before they were heard in committee to include more exclusions, saying that while they didn’t agree with the changes they viewed them as necessary to win support.
House lawmakers were especially squeamish. When the measure came up for its first committee hearing, Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, declined to vote altogether. 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 worried the bill might be “overly generous.”
In the end, Boysko said she agreed to the longer list of exclusions favored by lawmakers in the House because it was the only way to get the bill to the governor.
Lawmakers in the House also insisted on limiting a related proposal to expand Virginia’s compassionate release policy for terminally ill inmates, which are among the most restrictive in the country. The legislation would allow inmates with 12 or fewer months left to live to petition the parole board for release, but includes similar restrictions added to the earned sentence credit legislation. As a result, DOC estimates that out of an average of 16 terminally ill inmates in their care every year, about six would be expected to qualify.
Some Senate lawmakers voiced frustration at the added limitations, noting that a less restrictive version of the bill had passed their chamber under Republican control in 2019 with broad bipartisan support.
“We have compromised because that gets us at least some progress,” Boysko said as the legislative session concluded. “But this is definitely the first prison reform in, I believe, 25 years, so it’s pretty exciting that we are making this step.”