‘A slap in the face’: Prisoners, families have hopes dashed by governor’s amendment
Derrick Malie Hansford stands with other former inmates to talk about the need for prison reform at the Second Chance Rally organized by Ignite Justice at Echo Park in Glen Allen, Va., July 9, 2022. Hansford served 25 years and was released by Gov. Northam in 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)
Ashley Crocker had a message for Gov. Glenn Youngkin after he signed into law an amendment curtailing the expansion of an earned sentence credit program that would have released hundreds of people currently in state prisons beginning July 1.
“You’re ruining families,” Crocker, of Woodbridge, called out to Youngkin at a political event in Prince William County days after the budget was signed. “Children want their fathers and their mothers to come home.”
The exchange was captured on video by Chari Baker, a criminal justice reform activist from northern Virginia, who had organized a few families to show up at the event and confront Youngkin about the policy change. Baker runs an advocacy organization called Fighting for Reform and a weekly support group for people with incarcerated loved ones. Of the 180 people in the group, she estimates at least 40 have been affected by the policy change.
“I just wanted him to put a face on the decision that he made,” Baker said.
The governor’s amendment to the budget, which the General Assembly approved only two weeks before releases of eligible prisoners were set to begin, narrowed a 2020 law that sought to encourage prisoner rehabilitation by incentivizing good behavior. The legislation allowed prisoners to earn up to 15 days of “good time” credit toward early release for every 30 days served.
Previously, eligible incarcerated people could earn a maximum of 4.5 days of credit every 30 days.
Every Republican, as well as Sens. John Bell, D-Loudoun, Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, and Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, voted in favor of making inmates with mixed sentences — sentences for both violent and nonviolent crimes — ineligible to earn credits.
The governor’s amendment came after Sen. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, failed to pass legislation that attempted to repeal the entire 2020 law earlier this year during the regular legislative committee process.
Baker’s husband — whose mixed sentences include a robbery charge as well as a firearm possession charge and a probation violation — has served 14 years and was due to be released between August and September as a result of his earned sentence credits. Now he’ll spend another eight years in prison despite having completed his time for the violent offense, according to Baker.
When she spoke to him on the day the budget amendment passed, he was “in such a good mood” that she didn’t have the heart to break the news. When she told him the next day, she said it was “very difficult.”
“He just kind of stared off for a minute and he goes, ‘Are you serious,’” Baker said. “So I kind of had to, explain to him what happened and then he was like, ‘I just knew it was too good to be true.’”
When asked for comment on the impact for families, the governor’s spokesperson pointed to Youngkin’s statements in a recent interview with WRIC.
“The original bill wasn’t meant to accelerate the release of folks who had committed violent crimes,” he told WRIC. “So the bill had an error in the way it was written versus what was intended and what my amendment did was correct the error.”
‘Either we believe in rehabilitation or we don’t’
Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who carried the bill in the Senate, said she understood at the time the law was passed how the credits were going to accrue for those incarcerated with mixed sentences and was “disappointed” in the result of the vote on the amendment.
“Nobody from the administration [or] from the governor’s office ever contacted me to ask me if I felt like it was flawed,” Boysko said. “If they really felt like there had been an error, they would have reached out to me to ask me what had happened—but they didn’t.”
Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, the House patron of the 2020 bill, also said that he understood how the law’s implementation would work for mixed-sentence prisoners and added that the legislature should trust the state’s investment in correctional facilities.
“Either we believe in rehabilitation or we don’t,” Scott said. “We need to give everyone an opportunity to be rehabilitated if they have served a sufficient amount of time.”
Youngkin proclaimed April 2022 to be “Second Chance Month,” which acknowledged that “criminal justice agencies and reentry service providers play a vital role in enhancing long-term public safety, reducing statewide recidivism rates and decreasing violent crime victimization.”
“If I could sit down with the governor, I would say that we really believed that he believed in second chances, because that’s what he said and this was a prime example of the opposite,” Baker said. “So seeing that was a smack in the face.”
The amendment is unwarranted, said Shawn Weneta, policy strategist at the ACLU of Virginia, especially because all of the inmates at issue are coming home at some point anyway. In an opinion column published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch the day before state lawmakers voted on the amendment, he wrote in support of the expanded sentence credits, arguing that it does not threaten public safety because violent offenders have already served their time for those violent offenses.
“There are families that had made wedding plans, had signed leases, furnished homes, bought clothing, made a variety of plans and invested hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars in a person returning home, now have that carpet yanked out from underneath them,” Weneta said in an interview with the Mercury.
“It’s inhumane to think that we would do this to the people who were already given a release date,” Frances Ross, a criminal justice reform advocate from Virginia Beach, said. “I’ve received so many heartbreaking phone calls and cries for help.”
How many inmates are affected?
Ross urged families of incarcerated people to share their stories in order to bring greater awareness of the legislation to the public.
Weneta said he knows a mother with late-stage cancer whose son’s release has been rolled back to December and she “doesn’t know if she’s going to be alive then.”
Richmond resident Jackie Anderson had already bought new clothes and made vacation plans in anticipation of her husband’s release, but now believes she will have to wait another year to have him home. She says it has been difficult to raise her 11-year old daughter without a father.
“It impacted my daughter the most because she was all ready for her dad to come home, and once he told her that he wasn’t coming home — that they had shot him down — all she did was cry,” Anderson said.
DOC has not come to an exact number of inmates who will be immediately affected by the policy change as of Friday, but estimates it to be between 550 and 560 prisoners who were previously set to be released within the legally mandated 60-day window beginning July 1. Brad Haywood, executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, disputes those figures, saying that the number is closer to 1,000.
DOC Director of Communications Benjamin Jarvela said he’s “seen some of the chatter” about data discrepancies and believes that the “delineating factor is the time frame that you’re talking about.”
The expanded credits served as motivation to avoid infractions and participate in correctional programs in circumstances where “you don’t have a lot of hope,” said Angela Adinolfi, a prison reform activist from Richmond whose husband has been incarcerated since 2013. She estimates her husband would have gotten out in late 2027 instead of mid-2029 for his mixed sentence of a robbery, firearm and abduction conviction. The Department of Corrections estimates that about a total of about 8,000 prisoners will be affected by the policy change applied going forward.
‘It is a relief for victims of crime’
But victims of violent crime, especially those that testify against perpetrators, are often fearful of retribution after a prisoner is released, said Kate Hanger, executive director of the Virginia Victim Assistance Network.
“It is a relief for victims of crime to know that earned sentence credits will not be offered to the violent offender they fear will seek retribution when released,” Hanger said in an email statement. “Our members have reported to us that many of their victims are contacting them with concerns about early release. The victims we serve expect the sentence for the crimes committed against them to be served in full.”
There appeared to be confusion during floor debate last month over the expanded credit program’s implementation, with Sen. Mark Obeshain, R-Rockingham arguing that the bill “inadvertently provided eligibility to people who were convicted concurrently with offenses that were covered and offenses that were not covered” in the 2020 law.
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, countered that portraying the law as reducing murder, rape and robbery sentences is “a great soundbite and a great commercial, but that’s not what we’re doing.” DOC has since confirmed that the original expansion did not allow expanded earned sentence credits to apply to violent crimes, which were excluded in the legislation.
“We were following the statute as it was written in 2020, and the legislature has decided to amend based on the interpretation of that statute,” Jarvela said.
Morrissey said offenders still served their full sentences for any violent crime, but credits would be applied to reduce sentences associated with nonviolent crimes for which the inmate might also be convicted.
In practice, the amendment makes it so that no prisoner with any violent conviction, even if they have served the full sentence for the violent crime, is eligible for the expanded credits.
‘They never got complete information’
Haywood said that the misunderstandings could have been avoided by not introducing non-fiscal, “language-only” amendments into the budget process, a critique echoed by many lawmakers during different floor debates on Jun. 17.
“Nobody in the legislature knows for sure how many people are affected,” Haywood said. “They never got complete information. They never consulted with advocates about this. Especially in a lawmaking process like we have in Virginia, which is so abbreviated, and our legislators are so under-resourced, they really cannot figure this stuff out on their own.”
Weneta also claimed that DOC was “lobbying hard” in favor of the amendment.
“Fewer prisons means less money, which means less influence and less power, and no agency wants to give up money and influence,” Weneta said.
Jarvela said DOC is a state agency that does not lobby for any particular law and provided information it was asked to supply. He added that state prisons are already operating above capacity.
‘The way it was done was wrong’
The legislature gave DOC until July 1 to recalculate credits under the new rules, which apply retroactively, and then gave it a 60-day window to release any prisoner whose new release date came before July 1, as well as those whose updated release date fell within that July to Aug. period.
Before the amendment, those with either mixed consecutive sentences or mixed concurrent sentences with a shorter violent conviction than non-violent would have been eligible to earn expanded credits only on the non-violent charges. After the amendment, no prisoner with a mixed sentence is eligible for extra early release credit.
Weneta said that another consequence of the sudden change in policy is that both prosecutors and judges were operating under the assumption that incarceration would be 65 percent shorter than the sentence for many offenders, leading to longer sentences and more plea deals being accepted.
For those who are still getting an early release, Jarvela said that DOC is trying to be mindful in their approach and not “just open the doors and turn 3,200 people out at once” without adequate support and supervision in place.
“Releasing a population of inmates early, many of whom are incarcerated for violent offenses, is not the solution to the growing crime spike across the commonwealth,” Victoria LaCivita, spokesperson for Attorney General Jason Miyares, said in a statement. “This amendment prioritizes public safety and prevents the most violent offenders from being released early from prison, protecting law-abiding Virginians.”
The Virginia State Police’s crime report for 2021 showed an increase of 6.4 percent in homicides and 7.1 percent in violent crime since the previous year.
Baker said she understands the impulse to keep those charged with rape or murder, for example, from getting an even earlier release, but says that a host of offenses—like her husband’s robbery charge for snatching a purse—are also categorized as violent by code.
“The way it was done was wrong,” Baker said. “I just don’t understand why he waited until 10 days prior to it going into effect. I just think that was really harsh.”
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