A massive reform of Virginia’s entire justice system takes place in July of 2021. It affects every aspect of policing and incarceration. One of these reforms includes inmates possibly receiving an earlier release than they expected.
Governor Ralph Northam signed the reforms in late 2020, after the nation experienced several public outcries for change. For this specific reform, only Democrats voted in favor of the bill. No Republicans backed it.
Earned Sentence Credits
Currently, Virginia inmates can shave time off of their sentences for certain behaviors. They can earn 4.5 days of freedom for every 30 days served, but there are stipulations. First, they must show that they follow prison rules and have a record of good behavior. Then, they must attend certain counseling and educational sessions.
The reform will apply only to certain non-violent offenders. In it, they may earn more credits. At its highest allowance, convicts can receive 15 days of freedom for every 30 days served. Accumulated, this reform could remove as much as 1/3 of an inmate’s sentence. This reform may shorten the sentences of up to 14,000 inmates.
Due to the complexity of enacting this reform, it has been given one year to be fully implemented. This is the longest “delayed enactment clause” of any other Virginia reform. It gives prisons and jails time to iron out the details and be ready by July of 2022.
Inmates who have been convicted of violent, severe crimes may still earn credits, but only the current 4.5-day totals. This includes inmates convicted of animal fighting, robbery or burglary, rape, and murder.
Advocates and Detractors
Advocates for the bill point to evidence indicating that earned credits have an overall positive effect. They say that inmates who have gone through the program have an easier time reintegrating into society. Recidivism numbers have decreased for these inmates as well, they claim.
Republicans have expressed concern about contradicting Virginia’s truth-in-sentencing initiative. Over 20 years ago, this program was put into place. It ensures that violent offenders serve at least 85% of their overall sentence. The reform could erode, replace, or completely eliminate that policy.
The major split is over concern for the inmates and concern for victims’ groups. Advocates for the bill say it will help inmates with their overall self-improvement. Detractors worry that victims and their families will be left unsure of how long a convict will face justice.
The state is considering the sensitive nature of prison reform. As a result, there will be a review of the overall efficacy of this change. By June of 2023, The Department of Corrections must complete a report for the General Assembly and the governor. This report will show how well the reform has performed. It will discuss the direct impact on the people affected by this reform. It must also include the financial impact of the change, including the cost saved by sentence reductions.
Some are concerned that overzealous judges may impose harsher sentences to circumvent earned sentence credits. At The Law Office of Ann Thayer, PLLC, we will be keeping a close watch on authorities and how they behave under a new system. We want to protect the rights of Virginia’s citizens, and we will be there to help if power tries to overstep its bounds.
Compassionate Release Reform
Inmates may also benefit from a reform to Virginia’s compassionate release program. This will give inmates diagnosed with terminal illnesses – those given 12 months or less to live – an opportunity for parole. Like the earned sentence reform, it applies only to those convicted of certain non-violent crimes.
If you have questions about inmate reform for yourself or a loved one, we want to help. Initial consultations are free. Please call (703) 940-0001 or contact us online.