Meet Your Neighbor: Michelle and James Hensley

This is a story about a family impacted by earned sentence credit withdrawal. Sadly, there are thousands more like them.

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. “I had made plans for his arrival.”

The Hensleys expected James to be released in July of 2022 thanks to something called the earned sentence credit program. It recognized that people work hard while in prison and created a pathway for them to earn an earlier release when they prove that they don’t pose a risk to the public.

But after the General Assembly approved expanded earned sentence credits for people like James, the Youngkin administration undermined legislators by adding a provision to the Virginia state budget that the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) interpreted to mean many people would no longer be eligible for the program.

According to VADOC, that included James.

“In a word, I felt destroyed,” said James.

By the time James and Michelle learned James’ earned sentence credits would not be honored, Michelle had already begun preparing for James’ arrival – and so had the state. James had been cleared by the VADOC’s medical department, received paperwork from the court to have his fines cleared, received paperwork from the Department of Motor Vehicles, and signed his paperwork to be released. Probation officers had visited Michelle’s home to make sure it was stable. James had a job lined up and was ready to begin working upon his release.

And then the VADOC told him he was no longer going home.

“I know that politics... are a part of our society. [H]owever, politics … should not be the ultimate deciding factor when so many lives are affected and stand to be upended in the miscalculation of a decision,” said James.