ACLU of Virginia sues Department of Corrections over earned sentence credits

Group says controversial last-minute budget change can’t be applied to inmate sentences retroactively

By: - August 16, 2022 4:37 pm

The ACLU of Virginia is arguing that Antoine Anderson should be released this summer instead of being held in custody an additional 22 months after the General Assembly abruptly changed a state law governing "good-time" credits during its review of the state budget. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

The ACLU of Virginia is suing the director of the Virginia Department of Corrections and a state prison warden to try to force the release of an inmate, arguing the agency incorrectly blocked him from being let out early for good behavior in response to a last-minute change in the state budget that rolled back some sentencing reforms. 

The man at the center of the suit, Antoine Anderson, has been incarcerated in federal and state prisons since he was first arrested on federal drug charges in March 2004 and is currently being held at the Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County.

Under a 2020 law backed by Democrats, Virginia began allowing inmates to earn more credits to reduce their sentences for good behavior or participation in rehabilitation programs. Previously, all inmates were eligible to earn a maximum of 4.5 days of “good time” credit for every 30 days served. The 2020 law allowed certain incarcerated people to earn up to 15 days of credit every 30 days. 

Sentences linked to certain violent crimes such as murder could not be reduced through the credit program. 

This June, however, following a request by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, both the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and the Democrat-controlled Senate approved controversial budget language that would limit inmates with mixed sentences — sentences for both violent and non-violent crimes — from earning the enhanced good-time credit. 

Hundreds of prisoners who expected to be released early beginning July 1, including Anderson, were abruptly notified that they would instead have to serve the remainder of their terms. 

Anderson, who had been told repeatedly that he would be released this summer as part of the “first wave” of inmates impacted by the 2020 law, was notified the day after the General Assembly vote that he would have to serve an additional 22 months and cannot be released until April 2024. 

“These folks earned these sentence credits, and to be told they’re going home and were going to get to see their families, their kids, their spouses, their aging parents, that they were going to get freedom … to be told a couple of days before that they wouldn’t, it has been a traumatic experience,” said Geri Greenspan, an attorney with the ACLU of Virginia. “What happened to these people was really cruel.” 

In the lawsuit filed in Albemarle Circuit Court Tuesday, the legal organization is arguing that the budget language inserted this June cannot be applied retroactively to halt the early releases of inmates who had already accrued credits under the 2020 system. 

According to the ACLU of Virginia, while the 2020 law expanding good-time credit explicitly noted that its provisions “shall apply retroactively” to eligible inmates’ sentences, any changes in calculating credits triggered by the 2022 budget language can only be applied to sentences going forward. 

“The budget amendment should never have been applied retroactively to revoke sentence credits already earned,” the group wrote in a press release

Prior to the budget change this June, Anderson had been eligible to earn good behavior credits for sentences linked to two specific convictions of attempted escape and assault and battery. 

Those convictions were part of a 13-year state sentence for his role in an attempted escape from Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail in August 2004 while he was being held pending trial on federal drug charges. 

Anderson was held in federal custody on his drug charges until 2013, when he was transferred into Virginia’s custody to serve his state sentence. 

According to the petition filed by the ACLU of Virginia this week, Anderson completed a range of drug treatment, anger management and parenting programs as well as job training while in federal prison. Since he was transferred to the Virginia Department of Corrections in 2013, he has been “consistently employed,” is studying to complete his GED and “regularly attends church services.”

The ACLU of Virginia petition says that Anderson has “only been found guilty of two relatively minor disciplinary infractions” since he was transferred to state custody in 2013. 

“Mr. Anderson was 27 years old when he was arrested in 2004. He is now 45 years old and has changed and matured during his more than 18 years of incarceration,” the petition says. “He looks forward to his release from prison so that he can prove that he is not the same person he was twenty years ago, and can be a productive member of society and a good father and husband.” 

Benjamin Jarvela, director of communications for the Department of Corrections, said the agency has not yet been served with the suit and “cannot comment on pending or active litigation.” 

Greenspan said the ACLU of Virginia is also hoping the case can lead to the release of other inmates whose early release dates were suddenly rolled back. A separate suit filed in Richmond on behalf of another incarcerated person, the ACLU of Virginia said, is “making the same argument.” The other suit was filed by Charlottesville attorney Elliott Harding.

“There are hundreds more Mr. Andersons out there,” said Greenspan.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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