Va. lawmakers give Dept. of Corrections power to release some inmates early

RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — In the General Assembly's special session on April 22, where Virginia lawmakers considered all of Gov. Ralph Northam's proposed amendments to bills they passed earlier this year, they approved a proposal from the governor to allow limited inmate releases to cut down the population of people in jails vulnerable to COVID-19.

Northam proposed the budget amendment earlier this month, but it required lawmakers' approval to take effect.

It effectively gives the Virginia Department of Corrections the authority to release nonviolent inmates who have one year or less remaining in their sentences early.

Anyone convicted of a Class 1 felony or a sexually violent offense is not eligible for consideration. As of right now, under the amendment, according to the Dept. of Corrections, about 2,000 people eligible for early release consideration, but they say the exact number will change depending on how long Virginia's state of emergency lasts.

The authority lasts until July 2021 and is not a power the department has ever had before. Any releases previously arranged have been handled by local commonwealth's attorneys.

According to correctional officials, the idea behind the new authority is because most correctional facilities across Virginia face serious overcrowding.

The authority granted to the department allows them to release inmates who don't pose a threat to the safety of themselves or anyone else and also meet good behavior standards.

Under the amendment, the Dept. of Corrections will handle re-entry planning for all inmates who meet the standards. The department is responsible for identifying the inmates eligible for consideration, using procedures they say they've developed to ensure public safety.

The department will notify all offenders who are set to be released under the early release plan.

“The Governor and legislature have enabled us to discharge low-level offenders in a responsible manner,” said Brian Moran, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security. “These returning citizens will need our support. We thank family members and community organizations for doing all they can to offer services to this population as they are released during the pandemic. This unprecedented crisis calls for a smart, responsible approach which takes into account public safety while ensuring the returning citizens’ reentry success.”

Prison officials will need to plan for inmates to have somewhere to go upon their release and have necessary medications for at least three months.

The guidelines for early release

The Virginia Department of Corrections says they will be considering multiple factors in their reviews for whether offenders who are eligible for the newly available early release, including offense type and history, medical conditions, a documented and approved home plan, good time-earning level, and recidivism risk.

They say any offenders have to have no active detainers.

As the process is implemented, the department also says they'll consider broader public safety implications, which they say include "the safety and well-being of the offender and the offender’s family, availability of community resources, and access to proper health care for any medical or mental health treatment needs."

“Just as our medical professionals have been working around the clock throughout this pandemic, our offender management staff are moving very quickly to identify offenders eligible for early release,” said Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke. “We are focused on safety – public safety, staff safety, and offender safety. We’re looking at offender home plans and access to medical care, among many other factors. We must avoid releasing someone from a facility where they have access to 24-hour care into a situation in which they are more susceptible to COVID-19.”

Department officials say they are releasing offenders with three months' worth of medication instead of the usual one month throughout the pandemic to ensure that inmates returning to public life have time to establish care in the community and meet social distancing requirements.

Probation and parole

Probation and parole offices are also working to ensure they're ready to receive the newly released offenders as they are released.

All probation and parole districts have adjusted their intake process so that all or a portion of the intake process is set up and completed electronically. If electronic intake is not possible, officers are limited to completing one intake at a time in a manner that meets current sanitation and social distancing guidelines, utilizing Personal Protective Equipment.

The jail population already reduced

While the new budget amendment will allow for more inmates to be released, Virginia's jail population has already decreased by 17% under new state guidelines adopted as the pandemic began affecting our area.

According to a statement previously released by Governor Ralph Northam, collaborative efforts across the commonwealth to release non-dangerous low-level offenders from local and regional jails have worked.

“We are facing an unprecedented public health emergency, which has required us to work collaboratively to develop unique solutions,” said Governor Northam. “Criminal justice stakeholders across the Commonwealth are using the tools available to them to decrease our jail population and address this crisis responsibly, humanely, and deliberatively. This is exactly the type of cooperation we need, and I commend our public safety officials and urge them to continue these important efforts.”

Bacon on March 19, Gov. Northam issued guidance for local criminal justice officials, calling for them consider measures to reduce new jail intakes and reduce the current populations of jails, many of which, around the state, are overcrowded.

The Northam administration, in partnership with the Virginia Sheriffs Association (VSA), the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA), the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission (IDC), and the Virginia Association of Regional Jails (VARJ), recommended the following steps:

• Allowing sentence modifications that can reduce populations within the jails, as outlined in § 19.2-303 of the Code of Virginia.
• Diverting offenders from being admitted into jails prior to trial, including the use of summonses by law enforcement in lieu of arrest pursuant to § 19.2-74 of the Code of Virginia, and use of local pretrial programs as available and with consideration to local capacity.
• Considering ways to decrease the number of low-risk offenders being held without bail in jails.
• Utilizing alternative solutions to incarceration such as home electronic monitoring, pursuant to § 53.1-131.2 of the Code of Virginia.

On March 25, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran sent a letter to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, Donald Lemons, requesting assistance to encourage all magistrates and other responsible for determining bail to consider offenders' health and safety right now, as well as the safety of residents and employees in local and regional jails.

According to the governor's office, since late February, the number of new commitments to local and regional jails has decreased from approximately 10,000 during a two-week period to just over 4,000. On April 7, the jail population in the Commonwealth was 24,000, which is a 17 percent decrease from March 1. Virginia has also seen a 67 percent decline in the number of new commitments for misdemeanors across the Commonwealth.

On the local level, commonwealth's attorneys and courts have been responsible for releasing some non-violent offenders. Officials with Middle River Regional Jail, which has released a number of inmates from their overcrowded facility, explained the process to us. You can find that story here.

“Governor Northam called on local officials to work together to safely reduce our jail population, and this early and aggressive effort is clearly working,” said Secretary Moran. “Localities are taking these recommendations seriously, and I expect them to continue making decisions with the public safety of their communities in mind.”

What to know about preventing the virus

Most people don't suffer much from COVID-19, but it can cause severe illness in the elderly and people with existing health problems.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can cause mild to more severe respiratory illness. In a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can cause death, particularly among those who are older or who have chronic medical conditions. Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person. COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

To lower the risk of respiratory germ spread, including COVID-19, the Virginia Department of Health encourages the following effective behaviors:

• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Avoid contact with sick people.
• Avoid non-essential travel.

For the latest factual information on COVID-19, you're encouraged to check both the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC.