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July 1, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. – When Virginia’s new budget goes into effect today, it will finally allow full implementation of the earned sentence credit program as lawmakers intended two years ago. It took immense grassroots efforts by formerly incarcerated people and the loved ones of those still behind bars – as well as three different lawsuits before the highest court in Virginia – to finally implement one of Virginia’s few programs to actively incentivize rehabilitation in prison. 

“For years, thousands of people have been working in Virginia prisons to become better parents, partners, and people – and their loved ones have been working outside of them to make sure their hard work is recognized with credit towards their sentence,” said The Humanization Project Director Taj Mahon-Haft. “It’s an enormous victory for every single one of those families that the budget that goes into effect today will finally do just that.” 

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a law increasing how many credits incarcerated people can earn toward their release through Virginia’s earned sentence credit program, clearly listing which offenses are eligible for expanded credits and which are not. The program sets a high bar: to earn credits, people have to follow prison rules, work, educate themselves, and participate in programming – an approach that has helped at the federal level to reduce recidivism by 37 percent.  

But in 2022, the Youngkin administration undermined lawmakers’ plan to incentivize rehabilitation in prison by inserting an amendment into the biennial budget that shortchanged hundreds of people out of credits they had already earned and applying this new formula retroactively – all just weeks before they had been told they would be released and reunited with their loved ones. The Office of the Attorney General issued an advisory opinion that further doubled down by reinterpreting the law to exclude people convicted of many attempt, conspiracy, and solicitation charges from eligibility. 

Today’s budget – two years after the Youngkin administration undermined the General Assembly’s promise that hard work in prison would pay off – finally makes good on a smart reform that improves both public safety and the Commonwealth of Virginia’s bottom line. 

It costs thousands of dollars to incarcerate just one person for one year in Virginia. The earned sentence credit program cuts those costs by releasing people when it’s safe to do so. The program is on track to save Virginia at least $28 million in just its first two years with the potential for even more significant savings in the future – all while improving public safety. 

The earned sentence credit program also makes working conditions safer for correctional staff by incentivizing good behavior – and increases public safety upon incarcerated people’s release. In fact, according to a 2022 Data for Progress poll, the program makes the majority of Virginians feel as safe – or safer – than they did without it. 

"People who have worked hard, learned new skills, and followed the rules to earn their release should get it. For two years, we’ve advocated in every forum available to us – from the General Assembly to the Supreme Court of Virginia – to get incarcerated people’s hard work recognized,” said ACLU of Virginia Policy Director Chris Kaiser. “We'll keep watchdogging to ensure every single person who has earned sentence credits finally gets them. Today is a very welcome start.” 

On July 9, 2024, lawmakers, impacted people, and organizations who worked on the 2020 reform legislation will hold a press conference at 1:30 p.m. in the Virginia General Assembly’s Senate Briefing Room (Room 400). Speakers will include: 

  • Vishal Agraharkar, ACLU of Virginia 
  • Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D)
  • Gin Carter, The Humanization Project 
  • Quadaire Patterson, released on July 1, 2024

People who were released from Virginia correctional facilities on July 1, 2024 and their loved ones will be available for interview.