(iStock / Getty Images Plus)
The Supreme Court of Virginia rejected a Virginia inmate’s argument that last-minute changes in the state’s 2022 budget rolling back earlier sentencing reforms had wrongly blocked him from being let out early for good behavior.
In a decision that touched on the finer points of how policies become law, the court ruled that language in the state budget overrode conflicting directives in a 2020 law.
“It is hard to imagine a more definitive statement of the General Assembly’s intention that the provisions of the budget enacted in 2022 should be given effect over any other conflicting law,” wrote Justice Wesley G. Russell in a unanimous opinion Thursday that upheld an earlier decision in Albemarle County Circuit Court.
The high court’s ruling is a legal defeat for an estimated 8,000 inmates who over time could have been released early under an “enhanced” form of the state’s earned sentence credit system Democrats passed in 2020. Opponents of the GOP-led 2022 budget change altering that system have been particularly critical of its impact on more than 500 inmates who the state had notified would be released shortly after July 2022 before backtracking just weeks before they expected to be let out.
The current case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on behalf of one of those inmates, Antoine Anderson, who is being held at Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County.
Prior to 2020, Virginia inmates could have their sentences reduced by up to 4.5 days every 30 days for good behavior. That year, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed a law that retroactively increased the number of credits inmates could earn in a 30-day period to 15, moving up those individuals’ release dates. The law set a date of July 1, 2022 for the new system to go into effect.
While the legislation prohibited the enhanced credits from being applied to sentences for certain violent crimes, it allowed inmates with “mixed” sentences — imposed for both violent and nonviolent crimes — to reduce the sentences they received for their nonviolent crimes more quickly.
In preparation for the new system, the Virginia Department of Corrections notified hundreds of prisoners, including Anderson, that they would be released early, and families began preparing for their return.
In June 2022, however, Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed an amendment to the budget that would prevent inmates with mixed sentences from being eligible for any enhanced credits. The change narrowly passed the legislature, with three Democrats — Sens. John Bell of Loudoun, Lynwood Lewis of Accomack and Monty Mason of Williamsburg — joining Republicans in its support.
Anderson, who had previously been notified he would be released in the first wave of inmates eligible for the enhanced credits, was subsequently told he would remain incarcerated until April 2024.
First arrested on federal drug charges in 2004, Anderson that August received a 13-year state sentence after he tried to break out of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail where he was being held. He received four sentences for that attempt: one year for attempted escape, five years for abduction, two years for assault on a law enforcement officer, and five years for a second assault on a law enforcement officer.
Under the 2020 law, Anderson would have been eligible to earn enhanced credits to reduce his sentences for attempted escape and assault on a law enforcement officer but could not have decreased his sentence for abduction more quickly.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU of Virginia argued that the budget change couldn’t be used to halt the early releases of inmates who had accrued credits under the 2020 system. The group contended that while the 2020 law had specified it applied “retroactively,” the budget amendment had not included that language.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Virginia rejected that argument on the grounds that because the 2020 law wasn’t scheduled to go into effect until July 1, 2022, none of the inmates had actually earned any enhanced credits before the budget change was implemented.
The 2020 law “did not go into effect prior to July 1, 2022, and has never been in effect without the modification,” Russell wrote. “As a result, neither Anderson nor others similarly situated have ever been eligible to receive enhanced [earned sentence credits].”
The ACLU of Virginia said it was “disappointed” in the ruling, but “the fight is far from over.”
“The legislature can and should keep its promise to people who have done the hard work to earn a second chance,” said attorney Geri Greenspan.
Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled in favor of another inmate represented by the ACLU of Virginia, Steven Prease, who had argued the state was unlawfully limiting his eligibility for the enhanced sentence credits.
Prease contended that he could earn the enhanced credits for attempted aggravated murder because it was not explicitly listed among the crimes state law declared ineligible for quicker release, while the Virginia Department of Corrections argued the General Assembly had intended to include it. The court rejected that argument, and Prease was released July 13.
The ACLU of Virginia has since filed two more cases arguing the corrections department is unlawfully interpreting the law to deny other inmates early release.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.