RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Department of Corrections is preparing to release thousands of inmates early when a new state law takes effect this summer.
The new system, which allows certain offenders to earn shorter sentences, passed under Democratic control during a special session in 2020. The goal was to encourage rehabilitation but Republicans fear it will increase crime.
During an update to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning, VADOC’s Legislative Liaison Jermiah Fitz, Jr. said they’re preparing to release an additional 3,212 people between July 1st and August 30th due to the changes. He said that’s on top of the 1,396 inmates already expected to be released during this timeframe.
“There is going to be an immediate surge of releases come July 1,” Fitz said. “Between October and the end of this year, those numbers will kind of settle themselves out and we’ll go back to what our regular releases were.”
The reason for the sudden spike is that the law will apply to existing sentences retroactively, not just future ones, according to Fitz.
Inmates can already shorten their sentence for good behavior behind bars, including by participating in rehabilitative programs like job training and mental health treatment.
The new law expands those opportunities by creating a four-level earned credit system. It allows certain offenders to subtract up to 15 days for every 30 days served. The legislation also identifies which convictions only qualify for the current maximum of 4.5 days per 30 days.
Paulettra James expects her husband, Jerry, to get out of prison early due to these changes, though she hasn’t gotten official confirmation yet. She said he is currently in year 22 of a 38-year sentence for robbery and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
Since being incarcerated, James said her husband has gotten his GED, started college courses, participated in substance abuse programs and held a job in the front office. James is excited that the new law could give him a second chance.
“It gives them something to work towards and it gives them hope,” James said. “It’s giving them another chance to be with their family, to raise their children, to break generational curses.”
Of those expected to be released during the first two months of the program, VADOC estimates 36% are currently serving time for a violent crime as their most serious offense. The presentation said 34% fall under property and public order crimes whereas 30% have to do with drug sales and possession.
“Although most violent offenses are excluded, some inmates have a combined sentence of both violent crimes or violent convictions as well as non-violent offenses and they will receive the benefit of the enhanced earned sentence credit,” Fitz said.
Fitz said 62% have a violent crime somewhere on their record and 54% have a high to medium risk of violent recidivism, according to VADOC’s calculation.
It’s a concern for Attorney General Jason Miyares, who voted against the changes while serving in the General Assembly. Republicans tried and failed to reverse the reform this year after taking back statewide offices and the House of Delegates last election season.
“The only thing this is going to create is more victims,” Miyares said in an interview on Tuesday. “We’re going to see a news report of an innocent Virginian who lost their life or was the victim of a horrific assault that should’ve been behind bars and this bill is putting them back on the streets.”
In preparation for July 1st, Fitz said the “largest ever upgrade” to VADOC’s system that calculates and keeps track of inmate sentencing information is two weeks ahead of schedule.
Miyares said law enforcement will also need more resources to deal with “the revolving door.”
Fitz said recruitment challenges delayed hiring for some re-entry positions related to implementation. He said funding in the introduced budget will allow the state to hire additional probation and parole officers but negotiations have been stalled for weeks without public notice that a deal is imminent.
With the vast majority of early releases expected to require community supervision, Fitz said VADOC is looking to hire an additional 50 to 75 new officers. He couldn’t say how many they have brought on board so far but at least one lawmaker raised concerns.
“I’m not sure you have enough people out there right now,” Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Fitz said half of the additional expected releases have an approved home plan. He said 151 of them have a “problematic” release plan. That means they’re expected to be homeless at the time of release or they have a condition that requires further attention.
Fitz said VADOC is meeting with community partners and state agencies to help secure healthcare, housing, employment and other services for these individuals to prevent them from reoffending.