Virginia law halts early releases for inmates, angering families

RICHMOND, Virginia — Christopher Ford was a baby when his father was sentenced to 28 years in prison for participating in a murder-for-hire scheme that led to the murders of two people at a car dealership.

After serving 25 years, prison officials told Robert Glenn Ford he would be released in July under a 2020 Virginia law that allowed inmates to further reduce their sentences for good behavior, his son said. son.

But just before he was expected to return home, Virginia lawmakers approved a budget amendment by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin that barred Ford and thousands of other inmates guilty of violent offenses from receiving sentencing credits. earned expanded, which means they should serve more time.

“Using this backdoor method days before they were supposed to come out was, to me, extremely wrong,” Christopher Ford said in an interview.

As lawmakers debated the amendment, they discussed the roughly 560 inmates who, like Robert Ford, were to be released in the program’s first 60 days. But the impact is much greater. A Department of Corrections spokesperson has confirmed that approximately 8,000 inmates will now no longer be eligible for expanded credits.

Relatives and other advocates of affected detainees said the reversal had cruelly disrupted reunion and homecoming plans, devastating families and detainees themselves.

Republicans, who were joined by a few Senate Democrats in endorsing the amendment, argued that offenders convicted of violent crimes should not be given the chance to reduce their time behind bars.

The law, passed in 2020 when Democrats had full control of state government, created a tiered system that allowed inmates with good behavior and participating in rehabilitation programs to earn extended credits up to 15 days per month to be removed from their sentence for non-violence. offences. Before the law was passed, inmates could earn up to 4.5 days a month. Very few inmates are eligible for parole in Virginia.

The 2020 law had a delayed effective date to July 1, 2022, so that prison officials have time to calculate new release dates. And the credits change applied retroactively, meaning the Department of Corrections was preparing for a first wave of releases when it went into effect.

Under the 2020 law, violent offenses were not eligible for expanded credit. But if inmates had a combined sentence with both a violent conviction and a lower-level conviction, they could potentially reduce their sentence for the nonviolent offense by time.

Multiple attempts to repeal the law failed, but Youngkin’s last-minute budget amendment was approved by the General Assembly on June 17. He signed the budget bill a few days later.

During a state Senate debate on the amendment, Republicans suggested the law goes further than originally intended by allowing inmates convicted of violence to reduce any portion of their sentence, even for separate and lesser convictions.

“Because of the way this was written, it’s a loophole that we should close,” Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain said. He read a list of the most serious offenses committed by inmates among the first batch of early releases and insisted that some of those people would go on to reoffend.

“We’re going to hear about it when one of these 41 rapists commits another rape,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Joe Morrissey said everyone knows how the changes will work when the law passes and accused Republicans of playing politics with the issue.

“I know what’s coming in November and October, that the Democrats let all these people out of jail. It’s a great soundbite and great publicity, but that’s not what we do,” he said.

Youngkin also called the amendment a simple solution when a group of women with concerned parents confronted him last week at a campaign-style event in Woodbridge, where he was touting the recently signed budget. His aides took him away after the women started shouting questions.

“They dangled that hope in their faces and then ripped it out from under their feet 10 days before they were supposed to be released. It’s ridiculous,” said Chari Baker, whose husband was among those affected.

Baker, who said she heads a prison reform advocacy group, said the change has upended plans ranging from marriages to job opportunities. In one case, a dying father hoped to see his son before he died, she said.

Christopher Ford said his father, now 62, became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2006 and volunteered as a group leader in religious studies in prison. He also took agricultural classes and worked in the prison kitchen for years.

“I understand the fears of some people (about his release from prison), but there are people who have changed in their lifetime. My father is no longer the same person he was in 1997 when he committed these crimes,” he said.

Christopher Ford said that because his father’s release was delayed until February, his family delayed homecoming celebrations, such as a planned camping trip and a trip to a New York Giants game.

Paulettra James will wait even longer. She expected her husband’s release date to be brought forward by up to 10 years, thanks to the expanded appropriations. Jerry James is serving a 38-year sentence for a series of bank robberies and has worked hard to turn his life around, his wife has said.

“Receiving this news has been beyond devastating. It was heartbreaking,” she said.

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