Earned Sentence Credits in Virginia

Here's what you need to know about earned sentence credits (ESCs) and our work to guarantee their promise in Virginia.

The earned sentence credit program sets a high bar: to earn credits towards an earlier release, people who are incarcerated have to follow prison rules, work, educate themselves, and participate in programming that has helped at the federal level to reduce recidivism by 37 percent.

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a law increasing how many credits incarcerated people can earn. But in 2022, the Youngkin administration undermined lawmakers’ plan to incentivize rehabilitation in prison.

The amendment the Youngkin administration inserted into Virginia’s budget yanked the rug out from under hundreds of people and their loved ones just weeks before they had been told they would be released. 


Ever since, we’ve been hard at work in every forum available to us – from the General Assembly to the Supreme Court of Virginia – to get incarcerated people’s hard work recognized.

In 2024, the new state budget finally allows the earned sentence credit program to be fully implemented

People who earned their release should get it – and now, they finally will.


How We Fight For Earned Sentence Credits

We fought in the courts.

Three of our cases went all the way to the Supreme Court of Virginia. 

Three people in professional clothing walk together towards the same direction while in conversation.

Our first client was Mr. Steven Prease. While in prison, Mr. Prease got sober and received treatment for the PTSD that he suffered after his years in the military. Virginia Department of Corrections told him he would be released as a result of his hard work, so he asked a friend to plant a garden he could harvest upon his release at his mother’s house in southwest Virginia. He planned a camping trip with his 16-year old son. 

But he never got to take it. In fact, he missed his son’s high school graduation two years later – all because Virginia Department of Corrections refused to recognize his hard work.  

Learning he would not be going home after all felt like “a gut punch. I was about to get out to see my kid. It was time for me to be there to teach him things. When he comes for visitation, I can tell this has been hard on him too."

We took Mr. Prease’s case all the way to the Supreme Court of Virginia, and in July 2023, the highest court in the Commonwealth agreed that Mr. Prease’s hard work should be honored. And it agreed that the attorney general had wrongfully interpreted the law to deny him — and others like him with the same conviction — credits they had earned.

He was finally released that summer, free to see his son, start a business, and return to his life.

Next, we argued that Virginia Department of Corrections should honor Mr. Antoine Anderson's credits, too. But this time, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled against us in a decision that had implications for both Mr. Anderson and other people like him.  

“How can you grant freedom to someone and then just take it away like someone’s life doesn’t matter?”

The ruling meant that people serving mixed sentences for crimes that both are and are not eligible for earned sentence credits would not be eligible to earn any additional credits. The ruling was extremely disappointing.

“How can you grant freedom to someone and then just take it away like someone’s life doesn’t matter?” said Niya Anderson, Mr. Anderson’s daughter, who was looking forward to seeing her father outside of prison for the first time. “When I learned that my dad was not coming home after he was told he was coming home early, I was devastated.” 

So we kept fighting. Next we filed a lawsuit on behalf of two people, Mr. Leslie Puryear and Mr. Jose Garcia Vasquez. One, Mr. Leslie Puryear, was released when our lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Prease resulted in a change in policy that finally honored Mr. Puryear's hard work, too, and the hard work of people with convictions similar to his.  

He got home in time to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family. Less than six months later, our last client, Mr. Jose Garcia Vasquez, was finally released, too, when the Supreme Court of Virginia agreed with us that he and many others had worked hard to earn it.  

Mr. Garcia Vasquez had never seen his daughter – now a second grader. Yet, in between completing college classes, an electrician course, and working 30 hours every week in a prison job, he squeezed in time to talk to her every single day on the phone. When he was released, they finally met in person for the very first time.

We fought in the legislature.

Our clients aren’t the only ones who worked hard to earn credits towards their sentence only to be told it didn’t count.

A woman with curly hair embraces a man with short hair in front of a camera. Both of the people are smiling.

Thousands of people across Virginia worked hard to earn a release that didn’t come.  

Take the Hensleys: when Michelle Hensley heard that her husband James wouldn’t be coming home from prison as expected, she was at the doctor’s office. Her blood pressure skyrocketed so high, so quickly that her doctor wouldn’t let her leave. Michelle had to lie down; she tried not to think of James. 

“I felt like someone had died! My heart broke,” said Michelle Hensley. 

People like the Hensleys are why we didn’t stop at the courts. We took our fight to the legislature, too. 

We met with lawmakers, and we pushed hard to make sure the new budget didn’t include the same amendment that had blocked the earned sentence credit program back in 2022.  

In 2024, we succeeded. Virginia’s new budget finally allows full implementation of the earned sentence credit program the way lawmakers originally intended it.

We'll keep fighting – and so should you.

We'll keep watchdogging to ensure every single person who has earned sentence credits gets them. 

Text says: "VDOC you've got mail." In the right hand side is a hand with an envelope.

That means asking Virginia Department of Corrections tough questions about how they’re calculating people’s release dates, and what conditions they plan to use when they release people. 

Earned sentence credits are one of the only ways Virginia incentivizes people who are in prison to get the skills they need to succeed when they come home. The vast majority of people in Virginia prisons will one day come home – and the earned sentence credit program makes sure that when they do, they’re ready to succeed.  

Virginia made a promise. It’s time to keep it.