Some Virginia inmates could see their sentences cut nearly in half under legislation aimed at rewarding good behavior and participation in prison rehabilitation programs.
Bills advanced by Democrats in the House and Senate would dramatically expand the state’s existing earned sentence credit program, which currently caps sentence reductions tied to good behavior at 15 percent.
Supporters call the proposals an essential step toward rehabilitating prisoners before they’re released. But victim groups, Republicans and some Democrats have expressed unease with the breadth and scope of the proposals — and significant debate remains over whether violent criminals should be allowed to participate.
Earned sentence credits and the abolition of parole
Virginia’s earned sentence credit program, a variation of which exists in most states, dates back to 1995 when the state abolished parole during a nationwide wave of tough-on-crime reforms. With annual parole hearings out of the picture, the program was envisioned as a way to incentivize good behavior by inmates.
Supporters of the proposed expansion say the current system is too limited to offer a meaningful focus on reform and rehabilitation.
“When we expand earned sentence credits, we are giving them an incentive to work hard, to build job skills, to treat substance abuse, to seek an education,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who proposed the legislation in the Senate. “We can release inmates who are bitter, have no skills and feel hopeless or we can do the right thing and treat people like human beings.”
Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, who is carrying the House version of the bill, noted that Virginia’s current credit of 15 percent, which equates to 4.5 days earned per 30 days served, is low compared to many other states, including Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and South Carolina, which all allow inmates to earn a maximum of half off their sentences, according to Prison Fellowship.
The two lawmakers also cite studies that found states that expanded earned sentence credit programs reduced both recidivism rates and the costs of operating their prison system.
“There are some very, very, very conservative states that already do this,” Scott said.
The better the behavior, the shorter the sentence
Under the legislation proposed by Boysko and Scott, inmates who receive no more than one minor infraction and participate in all assigned work and rehabilitation programs would see their sentence credits escalate yearly from 13 days earned for every 30 days served to a maximum after five years of one day earned for every day served.
That means an inmate with an unblemished record who was sentenced to five years could expect to serve 64 percent of the sentence, or a little more than three years and two months. An inmate sentenced to 10 years would serve 58 percent of the sentence and an inmate sentenced to 20 years would serve 54 percent of the sentence.
Inmates who don’t meet those behavioral or programmatic requirements would earn credits at lower rates: 7.5 days for every 30 days served in the case of inmates who “require improvement in not more than one area,” 3.5 days for inmates who “require significant improvement in two or more areas,” and zero days for inmates who don’t participate in assigned programs or who cause security problems.
While the House and Senate versions of the bill agree on the maximum and minimum credits that should be awarded, they remain far apart on who should qualify to earn them.
In other states, practices vary considerably, according to the State Crime Commission, which studied the legislation. They found 20 states exclude people sentenced to life or life without parole, 20 states exclude people convicted of some violent felonies, 17 states exclude sex offenders and 11 state have no exclusions.
Should violent criminals be allowed to participate?
In the Senate, Boysko’s version of the bill excludes most people convicted of a violent crime — a provision she says she doesn’t personally support but viewed as necessary to win support from her colleagues in the chamber, who advanced the legislation from the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services on a party-line vote.
That excludes 17,964 inmates, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections, which estimated 2,831 prisoners would be eligible for release in the first year the bill is enacted under a provision that applies the new credit system retroactively.
Scott’s version, which the House Courts of Justice Committee signed-off on Wednesday, includes significantly fewer restrictions, barring only people convicted of capital murder and most acts of violence involving a minor victim.
People convicted of other serious crimes would only be excluded if it was their second offense, including people convicted of rape, first degree murder or lower, commercial sex trafficking and production of child porn.