Northam says he won’t rush pardons as term winds down

COVID pushed administration to issue a record 695 pardons

By: - December 2, 2021 12:02 am

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam stands in the doorway of the visitation room off of the holdings cells new the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center prior to signing a bill abolishing the penalty in Jarratt, Va., Wednesday, March 24, 2021. One hundred and two executions were performed at the since the early 1990’s. (Pool photo/AP/Steve Helber)

Cynthia Scott started serving a prison sentence on a robbery conviction at age 31. She’s now 52. Her release date won’t come until she’s 70.

She doubts she’ll make it.

“Not with this medical care,” she says, describing a range of serious conditions she says have gone untreated despite leaving her incontinent and in danger of permanent kidney failure.

Scott is the titular plaintiff in a long running lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections over shoddy health care at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where a federal judge has acknowledged substandard treatment contributed to a string of deaths at the facility.

And she is hoping that before Gov. Ralph Northam leaves office, he will act on her petition for a conditional pardon, which argues that in addition to the danger caused by limited health care and the risk posed by COVID-19, her 40-year sentence was unusually harsh in the first place — far in excess of the 10-to-25 year sentencing guidelines and longer than many murderers receive.

Scott says she has no faith that the incoming Republican administration of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin will consider her application, citing his tough-on-crime rhetoric on the campaign trail. “He already said that he is totally against violent offenders and he was going to change the Parole Board because they were being too lenient,” she said. “Regardless of what their crime is, everybody deserves a second chance.”

With medical problems piling up and the prison still not meeting the terms of a settlement aimed at improving care, she says Northam is her best chance at getting out alive.

Scott is far from alone in her hope that Northam will act on a backlog of pardon applications before Youngkin takes office.

Northam, however, says he has no plans to speed through a stack of pardon applications on his way out.

“We’ve had a backlog over the years and we’re not rushing things now,” he said before the Thanksgiving holiday. “We do it safely and go through all the procedures. I think we’ve pardoned more people than all the other administrations put together and we’ll continue to work through it until our last day here.”

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

Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson, whose office investigates pardon applications, said Northam has issued 695 pardons to date, which the administration has calculated is more than at least the past nine governors combined.

Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, issued closer to 30 pardons a year during his term. Bob McDonnell, the last Republican to hold the office, issued about five a year.

Northam started off slower, issuing between 50 and 60 a year until last year when COVID-19 hit and he made pardons part of a broader effort to reduce the number of people in state prisons, where the virus spread widely, infecting thousands and killing 57.

Thomasson says the administration is still processing applications, but they can’t be expedited because they all require individual investigation.

“A lot of folks are calling and expect us to have this approach of, ‘Oh, now that he’s a lame duck, outgoing governor, you’re going to pardon all the people now,” Thomasson said. “That’s not the approach at all that we’ve taken through this administration.”

Scott is still hoping the administration makes it to her application, submitted as COVID began spreading last year with the support of the robbery victim’s family.

In a phone call from Fluvanna, she says her message to Northam is simple: “I don’t want to die in here.”

And to people who might think her punishment fits the crime, she says she hopes they can understand she is a different person now.

“I was on drugs — crack cocaine,” she said. “My addiction took my whole life away from me. My kids were nine and 13 when I got locked up. They are now 30 and getting ready to turn 34.

“I know that I have changed.”

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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. Contact him at [email protected]

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