Governor Ralph Northam will sign a bill granting earned sentence credits to violent offenders and sexual predators. Certain inmates will be eligible to reduce their sentencing by up to fifty percent.
The bill, House Bill (HB) 5148, includes those sentenced for certain classifications of murder, rape, robbery, abduction, kidnapping, lynching, terrorism, domestic assault, strangulation, genital mutilation, child pornography, and stalking.
These credits are awarded using a “four-level classification system” within programs administered by the Virginia Department of Corrections Director.
Prior to this bill, “truth-in-sentencing” law mandated felons to serve at least 85 percent of their time. This law was a response to previous issues with inmates serving as little as a fifth of their sentence. The government reported historically low crime rates after truth-in-sentencing took effect.
Prisoners may not apply sentence credits to time preceding parole eligibility.
HB 5148 is a partisan effort: all seventeen House patrons and three Senate patrons are Democrats.
In an interview with The Virginia Star, Delegate Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) stated that he’d hoped for the bill to go further.
“Earned sentence credits are a good thing. It incentivizes people to do well while they’re in prison, take advantage of the programs, earn an education, and stay out of trouble. When they do, they get out to become productive and purposeful. The problem with these bills is that they don’t go far enough. They have a carve-out for all these crimes. It should be a blanket-earned sentence credit.”
One of the bill’s patrons, Delegate Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon) told The Star that she agreed with Morrissey’s assessment. Boysko also noted that the Virginia Code isn’t organized well, which is why certain crimes that appear to match or surpass the severity of crimes eligible for sentencing credits aren’t included in the bill.
“When the initial bill was put forth for earned sentencing credits, there were no exclusions in it. Unfortunately, my colleagues didn’t all see it in the same way. They had concerns. If you’ve ever looked at the criminal code, it lumps different groups of sentences in categories, and so [legislators] would come to me and say, ‘I’m not going to vote for your bill unless it has this category of crimes in it.’ In the best world, we would go through the criminal code and clean it up so it makes logical sense. [My colleagues] said, ‘This group of offenses, I want them out.’ And so, some things got caught up that I’m regretful for, and would’ve liked to have seen them in the final version [of the bill].”
Additionally, Boysko explained that there were only a few types of crimes she would’ve excluded from sentencing credits.
“My intention would’ve been to exclude intentionally violent crimes and sex crimes against children and rape, if we were going to get them excluded.”
The bill also directed the Department of Corrections to create a work group to study the legislation’s impact, and to ensure that every correctional facility had programs under which prisoners could earn sentence credits.
Northam recommended minor edits to the bill, only striking a law concerning individuals who die from a mob attempting to lynch another person. Northam also extended the work group study deadline by another year.
Virginia Beach attorney Tim Anderson told The Star that he acknowledged that different criminals have different recidivism rates, but he stated that the bill included those that shouldn’t receive sentencing credits.
“I’m all about trying to release non-violent offenders and getting them out sooner. There are certain people in society that need to be kept away from the general public. I don’t subscribe to that philosophy that we should have blanket sentencing credits.”
Anderson also emphasized the risk this bill imposes on true justice for victims and their families, as well as public safety.
“It shouldn’t matter if you got a good grade in prison – it should matter how much of a threat you present to society. If I had a daughter and she was raped, and then her rapist got ten years, and then I found out he got a sentencing credit because he became a barber in prison? I would be very upset about that.”
In a statement issued to The Star, Fraternal Order of Police President John Ohmberger stated that prosecution and sentencing officials would better serve to remark on the bill, and expressed hope that those granting credits to prisoners will use good judgment.
Boysko expressed a hope that further education on the data concerning earned sentencing credits will broaden the system in the future.
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