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April 18, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. – Today the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a ruling in Garcia Vasquez v. Dotson finding that the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) unlawfully extended the incarceration of Jose Garcia Vasquez by more than eighteen months by withholding sentence credits that he earned while in prison. 

The ruling should pave the way for the early release of other people being held by VDOC whose incarceration was extended based on an advisory opinion by Attorney General Miyares. The Court has now twice rejected that opinion’s interpretation of a 2020 law regarding earned sentence credits. 

"VDOC and the Attorney General are supposed to uphold and apply the law as written, but instead, they manufactured their own interpretation of it and hoped no one would notice,” said ACLU of Virginia Senior Supervising Attorney Vishal Agraharkar. “Today the Supreme Court of Virginia told VDOC, yet again, that the law is clear: people like Mr. Garcia Vasquez are entitled to the sentence credits they have worked hard to earn.  We look forward to Mr. Garcia Vasquez’s imminent release and reunion with his loved ones from whom he has been separated for too long already.”  

Since 1995, the earned sentence credit program has made it possible for some people incarcerated in Virginia to earn their release. When Virginia lawmakers passed a law in 2020 increasing how many credits people can earn, the change was expected to impact thousands of people incarcerated in VDOC facilities. 

Yet despite clear language in the law listing which convictions are not eligible for additional credits, VDOC chose to withhold credits from people whose convictions were not on that list – people who should have been eligible for sentence credits under the law as lawmakers wrote it. 

"VDOC should have awarded enhanced earned sentence credits to Mr. Garcia in accordance with the law, rather than waiting to be ordered by the highest court in the Commonwealth to do so,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Eden Heilman. “Today’s ruling presents an opportunity for VDOC to do the right thing and award credits to everyone else in their custody who has earned them. In Virginia, the General Assembly writes the laws, not VDOC. It’s time for VDOC to honor the promise lawmakers made in 2022 to recognize the hard work of people in Virginia’s prisons. 

Garcia Vasquez v. Dotson is the third case that the ACLU of Virginia has filed on behalf of incarcerated people with inchoate offenses (such as conspiracy or attempt convictions) who should have been receiving enhanced sentence credits since 2022. In 2023, the Supreme Court of Virginia agreed with the ACLU of Virginia in Prease v. Clarke, ruling that VDOC’s interpretation of the law was incorrect and ordered Mr. Prease’s immediate release to his family. After the Court’s decision in Prease, VDOC reversed course in another ACLU of Virginia case, Puryear v. Dotson, and agreed that Mr. Puryear’s convictions were eligible for enhanced sentence credits, resulting in his release. 

But because VDOC refused to extend the Court’s decision in Prease to everyone with convictions for inchoate offenses, the ACLU of Virginia continued to litigate this issue on behalf of Mr. Jose Garcia Vasquez, and were rewarded today with a favorable decision. 

Mr. Garcia Vasquez, 24, has never seen his daughter – now a second grader – outside of prison. 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. The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled today that Mr. Garcia Vasquez’s hard work should be honored, and that VDOC must release him.