Thousands of Virginia prisoners could be released early under new earned sentence credit program

Thousands of Virginia prisoners could be released early under new earned sentence credit program
It also includes a delayed enactment date of January 2022 to give the Department of Corrections time to reprogram its computer system. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Prisons)

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 to set 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 a 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.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.