RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A last-minute pivot is preventing some inmates from having their sentences cut short.
Under a new law taking effect July 1, more than 3,000 inmates are still expected to be released early throughout the summer, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.
But hundreds who had already made homecoming plans will have to wait longer as a result of a budget amendment proposed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and passed by the General Assembly earlier this month.
Chari Baker is among the family members impacted. She confronted Gov. Youngkin at an event last week.
“Now we have to tell our children that their dads aren’t coming home,” Baker yelled from the crowd.
Baker said in an interview on Monday that her husband, Carl, has been incarcerated for 14 years for robbery and possession of a firearm. She said, because of the budget change, she expects he will get out of prison in eight years instead of this August or September. By then, she said their 13-year-old son will be 21.
“It’s devastating. It’s heartbreaking and I just felt like he needed to see the people that were affected,” Baker said.
Asked in a one-on-one interview how he would respond to families who feel like the rug was pulled out from under them, Youngkin said, “Everyone knows that, in fact, the original bill wasn’t meant to accelerate the release of folks who had committed violent crimes. So the bill had an error in the way it was written versus what was intended and what my amendment did was correct the error.”
Following the bipartisan vote on June 17, VADOC estimated 550 people previously set to be released this summer are no longer eligible for expanded time off from their sentence for good behavior. As of Monday, that number had not been finalized.
According to Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), that total includes people serving time for first-degree murder, rape, abduction and robbery.
“When one of these 43 murderers commits another murder, we’re going to hear about it and we’re going to be held accountable if we vote against this amendment,” Obenshain argued before the vote.
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.
VADOC Director of Communications Benjamin Jarvela confirmed in an email that the original law passed in 2020 already prohibited expanded earned sentence credits from being applied to violent crimes.
Following the approval of Youngkin’s budget amendment, Jarvela said those with combined sentences will no longer be able to earn additional credits to cut down their non-violent offenses.
Jarvela said those deemed ineligible after the change were notified in-person by staff in their respective facilities. He said those same people previously learned of their eligibility when VADOC asked for the development of a home plan but final verification was still pending.
At least three Senate Democrats — Senators John Bell, Monty Mason and Lynwood Lewis — sided with Youngkin to roll back the reform. Others said the original legislation was clear.
“We have a responsibility to read this bill and everybody who read the bill in 2020 knew exactly what was going to happen,” Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said during the floor debate.
The deciding 22-17 vote in Senate came after a previous effort to completely repeal expanded earned sentence credits was shot down earlier this year. Lawmakers tend to shy away from “legislating through the budget” because decisions are made without a committee hearing or formal public input.
Baker said the last-minute pivot sends a harsh message to those behind bars trying to better themselves.
“That they don’t matter,” Baker said. “We focus so much on the punishment that we don’t focus on the rehabilitation.”
During a previous presentation, VADOC estimated 36% of those set to be released during the first two months of the program had a violent crime as their most serious offense. The presentation said 34% had property and public order crimes, whereas 30% had to do with drug sales and possession.
In preparation for implementation of the new law, VADOC has been overseeing the “largest ever upgrade” to its system that calculates and keeps track of inmate-sentencing information.
Asked if they faced any logistical challenges trying to adjust on short notice, Jarvela said in an email, “DOC is committed to serving the public in the best interest of long-term safety and will continue to meet the requirements of the General Assembly and the Governor regarding this and all other initiatives.”
Jarvela also denied rumors that there was an attempted suicide at Lunenburg Correctional Center from an inmate who had been told he was no longer going home in July due to the budget amendment. He said he verified with the facility that there had been no such incident.
Jarvela said mental health and peer counselors have been made available to affected inmates.