RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The Supreme Court of Virginia has ruled that people serving sentences for both violent and nonviolent crimes can’t earn enhanced credits for an early release under the state’s expanded sentence reduction program.
The high court’s opinion came in the case of Antoine Anderson, a man serving time for violent and nonviolent convictions who argued the state wrongly interpreted changes to the program laid out in the 2022 state budget to block him from being released last year.
In 2020, a Democratic-controlled Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 5148 to increase the number of credits prisoners can potentially earn to reduce their sentences through good behavior and rehabilitation programs – with restrictions for some violent convictions. Before, the cap was at 4.5 days reduced for every 30 days served, but the law raised it up to 15 days.
The law allowed the earned credits to be applied retroactively once it took effect on July 1, 2022. But two weeks before then, lawmakers narrowly approved a state budget change from Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), making those with “mixed” sentences – convictions for violent and nonviolent crimes – ineligible for any enhanced credits under the new program.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sued the state’s corrections department on behalf of Anderson, arguing that, unlike the law, the budget provision didn’t say the rule change should apply retroactively and Anderson earned enough credits to be released.
Anderson is serving a 13-year sentence at Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County for state convictions of attempted escape, abduction and two counts of assault on a corrections officer stemming from an attempted escape from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
The lawsuit claimed Anderson was set to be part of the “first wave” of people expected to be released last summer, but weeks before then, he was told he would be released in April 2024.
An Albemarle County judge rejected Anderson’s challenge after finding he was ineligible to earn enhanced credits before the new system took effect, a ruling the state Supreme Court upheld in a unanimous decision Thursday.
“No matter how vigorously Anderson argues that he would have been entitled to enhanced ESCs if HB 5148 had not been adopted with a delayed effective date of July 1, 2022, or if it had gone into effect on that date without Item 404(R)(2)’s modification, HB 5148 did not go into effect prior to July 1, 2022, and has never been in effect without the modification,” Justice Wesley G. Russell wrote in the high court’s opinion. “As a result, neither Anderson nor others similarly situated have ever been eligible to receive enhanced ESCs under HB 5148.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections estimated last June that the change would impact more than 500 people who expected to be released last summer after earning enough credits.
A department spokesperson acknowledged 8News’ requests for comment and additional information on how many people could be affected but did not respond before publication Thursday.
“Mr. Anderson’s case asked whether people serving mixed sentences were eligible for expanded sentence credits, and although we are disappointed in the Supreme Court of Virginia’s ruling that they are not, the fight is far from over,” ACLU of Virginia Senior Staff Attorney Geri Greenspan said in a statement. “The legislature can and should keep its promise to people who have done the hard work to earn a second chance.”
The office of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) applauded the state Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday.
“We are very pleased that the Supreme Court has unanimously rejected the ACLU’s effort to get thousands of violent felons released early from prison,” Miyares Spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said in a statement, adding that rushing the release of prisoners like Anderson would have put “public safety at risk.”