Today the ACLU of Virginia challenged the Virginia Department of Corrections’ (VDOC) improper interpretation of the expanded earned sentence credit program, asking the Virginia Supreme Court to order the immediate release of Steven Prease from VDOC custody.
Since 1995, the earned sentence credit program has made it possible for most people incarcerated in Virginia to earn early release. In 2020, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a law increasing how many credits people can earn. This expansion of the program was expected to impact thousands of people currently incarcerated.
Yet since June, VDOC has been improperly withholding earned sentence credits from people who are eligible to earn them. The law clearly states which offenses are eligible for the additional earned sentence credits, but VDOC is nonetheless withholding expanded sentence credits from people whose convictions are not listed among the excluded crimes.
“VDOC is choosing to treat additional offenses – listed nowhere in the statute – as ineligible for expanded credits,” said ACLU of Virginia Senior Staff Attorney Vishal Agraharkar. “In Virginia, the General Assembly writes the laws, not VDOC. The General Assembly already decided who gets the additional sentence credit, and it’s time for VDOC to make good on the promise that lawmakers made to people who worked hard to earn early release.”
Steven Prease is among the hundreds of people whose early release dates VDOC rescinded just weeks before they expected to go home. VDOC approved Mr. Prease’s home plan after he was told this spring that he would be released between July 1 and September 1, 2022, only to reverse course and notify Mr. Prease that it had changed its interpretation of the law.
VDOC now claims that Mr. Prease’s convictions do not qualify for the expanded sentence credits – despite the fact that all four of the convictions for which Mr. Prease is currently serving sentences should be eligible for the earned sentence credit program under the statute as it is written.
While in prison, Mr. Prease got sober and received treatment for the PTSD that he suffered as a result of his years in the military. He took steps in anticipation of his release to find a job and a place to stay, asking a friend to plant a garden at his mother’s house for harvest upon his release, and planning a camping trip with his 16-year-old son.
But without access to the sentence reduction that he has already earned, Mr. Prease will not be able to take that trip, or even attend his son’s eventual high school graduation. When Mr. Prease learned he would not be going home this summer, he said it 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.”
Mr. Prease is one of hundreds of people who VDOC’s unlawful interpretation of the law has denied early release under the credits he has already earned.
“Mr. Prease is not an outlier: he’s one of thousands of people incarcerated in Virginia who lawfully qualify for earned sentence credit, even if VDOC is now trying to say that he doesn’t,” said ACLU of Virginia Staff Attorney Geri Greenspan. “Prolonging the incarceration of people like Mr. Prease eliminates any incentive for self-improvement and does nothing to improve public safety. People who are eligible for VDOC’s earned sentence credits deserve the early release they worked hard to earn.”
Prease v. Clarke is the second case the ACLU of Virginia has filed on behalf of an incarcerated person who was told he would be released early, only to later be told he didn’t qualify. Because VDOC does not have the authority to add convictions to the law, but must implement the law as it is written, ACLU-VA's petition on Mr. Prease’s behalf calls for his immediate release.
More information on ACLU of Virginia’s first case challenging the unlawful implementation of the earned sentence credit program can be found here.