Opinion | An important Virginia criminal justice reform is threatened

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Jennifer B. Boysko, a Democrat, represents Fairfax in the Virginia state Senate.

The expansion of Earned Sentence Credits (ESCs), which I introduced in the 2020 legislative session, is again under fire in Richmond as the General Assembly awaits the governor’s amendments to the annual budget. Ideological opponents of criminal justice reform have made this data-driven reform into a political football since its passage.

The measure has been extensively debated and is finally set to take effect July 1. About 1,000 incarcerated Virginians and their families have been counting on the legislation to take effect as written. They have completed all the steps laid out for them and are now waiting for the commonwealth to uphold its side of the bargain.

The governor is using a budget amendment to partially repeal the ESC reform and revoke the commonwealth’s promise.

The idea behind ESCs is simple. When we send someone to prison, we do not do so merely for the purpose of punishment. The Department of Corrections is charged with providing opportunities so that the person convicted of a crime can reflect on what he or she did wrong and find a new path.

These credits are an incentive for people to make that progress while serving their sentences and to behave well while incarcerated. If an incarcerated person makes the progress the law asks for, they get a small reduction in their sentence. These credits also help people stay on the right path once they get out because they have built the skills needed to succeed in society.

Politicians hoping to make headlines by scaring voters want to frame the people being released as a threat to public safety. This could not be further from the truth. Those being released committed their offenses long ago and have proved themselves to have been rehabilitated. More serious offenses — crimes of serious violence, sexual assaults, kidnapping and the like — are excluded from receiving additional ESCs, meaning that most of those who have earned their release are charged with financial crimes and drug offenses.

For incarcerated people and their families, these small reductions are meaningful. A father comes home to his children a little sooner. A husband comes home to his wife a little sooner. Families are reunited. Redemption can be a long journey, but once someone comes to the end, you can truly say that he or she has earned freedom. Denying people that opportunity is another example of cruel and petty politics harming Virginia families.

Jason was convicted in 2013 of breaking into an unoccupied house and stealing some property stored there and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was scheduled to be released in 2025 without the change in the Earned Sentence Credit law. Expecting the new law to take effect in July, the Virginia Department of Corrections told Jason he would be released this summer. His family enrolled him in driving courses so he could get his license back and set him up with a job in a shipyard. They bought him clothes in preparation for his release, and he is excited to meet his new grandson this summer. Jason and his family have relied on the law as written and made plans according to the Department of Corrections notice. If the governor’s repeal takes effect, Jason will not be released until 2025, three more years after being told he would be released this summer.

Jason is only one example of many who would have their promise of release cruelly snatched from them by the governor’s amendment. There are many hundreds of people who are waiting in Virginia prisons. They have been rehabilitated. They have learned their lessons. These men and women have worked so hard to redeem themselves. They have done everything they can to follow the rules we lawmakers have set for them, and they now are threatened with having the rug pulled out from under their feet.

We cannot create a system of reform if the people we govern cannot trust the laws we have set in place. Earned Sentence Credits not only make it more likely that incarcerated people will come home with skills that will ensure that they do not return to prison, but they also give those in prison the incentive to follow the rules and change for the better.

If the governor and General Assembly change the rules for Earned Sentence Credits at the 11th hour, they will have sabotaged this important reform. We must not allow that to happen.