Virginia law stops early inmate releases, angering families

Inmate Release Blocked (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Inmate Release Blocked (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

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 killings 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 shave more time off their sentences for good behavior, his son said.

But just before he was expecting to go home, Virginia lawmakers approved a budget amendment from Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin that excluded Ford and thousands of other inmates with violent offenses from receiving the expanded earned sentence credits, meaning they would have to serve more time.

“Using this back-door method days before they were supposed to get out was, to me, hugely wrong,” Christopher Ford said in an interview.

As lawmakers debated the amendment, they discussed the approximately 560 inmates who, like Robert Ford, were set to be released in the first 60 days of the program. But the impact is far larger. A spokesman for the Department of Corrections confirmed that about 8,000 inmates will now be ineligible for the expanded credits.

Relatives and other advocates for the affected inmates said the reversal cruelly upended reunion and homecoming plans, devastating families and the inmates themselves.

Republicans, who were joined by a few Senate Democrats in approving the amendment, made the case that offenders who were convicted of violent crimes shouldn't get a shot at reducing their time behind bars.

The law, passed in 2020 when Democrats were in full control of state government, created a tiered system that allowed inmates with good behavior and participation in rehabilitation programs to earn expanded credits for up to 15 days per month to be taken off their sentences for nonviolent offenses. Before the law was approved, inmates could earn up to 4.5 days per month. Very few inmates qualify for parole in Virginia.

The 2020 law had a delayed effective date of July 1, 2022, so prison officials would have time to calculate new release dates. And the change in credits applied retroactively, meaning the Department of Corrections was preparing for an initial surge of releases when it took effect.

Under the 2020 law, violent offenses were not eligible for the expanded credit. But if inmates had a combined sentence with both a violent conviction and a lower-tier one, they could potentially shave some time off the sentence they were given for the nonviolent offense.

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

During a debate in the state Senate over the amendment, Republicans suggested the law went further than initially intended in allowing inmates with violent convictions to reduce any portion of their sentence, even for the separate, lesser convictions.

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

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

Democratic Sen. Joe Morrissey said everyone knew how the changes would work when the law was passed and accused Republicans of playing politics with the issue.

“I know what's coming in November and October, that Democrats let all these people out of prison. It’s a great soundbite and a great commercial, but that’s not what we’re doing,” he said.

Youngkin also characterized the amendment as a simple fix when a group of women with affected relatives confronted him last week at a campaign-style event in Woodbridge, where he was touting the recently signed budget. His aides whisked him away after the women began to shout questions.

“They dangled this hope in their faces and then they snatched it up from under their feet 10 days before they were supposed to be released. That’s ridiculous," said Chari Baker, whose husband was among those affected.

Baker, who said she runs a prison reform advocacy group, said the change upended plans ranging from weddings to employment opportunities. In one instance, a father close to death was hoping to see his son before he died, she said.

Christopher Ford said his father, now 62, became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2006 and volunteers as a group leader in religious studies in prison. He’s also taken agriculture courses and has held a job in the prison kitchen for years.

“I understand the fears some people have (about releasing him from prison), but there are people who have changed during their time. My father is not the same person he was in 1997 when he committed these crimes," he said.

Christopher Ford said because his father’s release has been put off until February, his family has delayed homecoming celebrations, like a planned camping trip and trip to a New York Giants game.

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

“To get this news was beyond devastating. It was heartbreaking,” she said.