If you have a loved one in a Virginia prison, you’ve probably heard a lot about “earned sentence credits” in the last few years. These credits aren’t something you’d encounter without being or knowing somebody in the prison system. But when you are or do, they are extremely important because they can mean regaining your freedom sooner.

There was a lot of talk about how earned sentence credits were going to be expanded recently. This was going to be good news since it would mean more people getting to reconnect with their loved ones as they are freed from prison. Unfortunately, the story got a lot more complicated within the last several months. For some people, there is still good news, but others will be disappointed at the recent developments.

To better understand what happened with earned sentence credits, we will first explore how earned sentence credits work. This will allow us to understand better how an expansion of the earned sentence credits system would function. Then we’ll look at what happened in the last few months to slow that expansion and how some people are fighting to try to get the expansion moving forward again.

What Are Earned Sentence Credits?

If you were convicted of a felony offense after January 1, 1995, and are sentenced to serve a term of incarceration in a state or local correctional facility, then you are eligible to earn sentence credits. You might not have heard this term before, but most people are familiar with the idea of prisoners being released early for good behavior.

Early release for good behavior has been around for many years, and there are many different movies and TV shows that make reference to this idea. There are even laws on the books that use this kind of language, specifically regarding those sentenced between July 1, 1981, and January 1, 1995. However, the introduction of sentence credits slightly changed this system.

Instead of some vague sense of how much time off good behavior is worth, sentence credits are a concrete metric through which to measure this. Eligibility for sentence credits begins when an individual is incarcerated. This means that from the moment of being incarcerated, it is possible to begin working on earning sentence credits that will be deducted from an individual’s term of confinement.

An individual could only earn so many sentence credits over a period of time. For 20+ years, the law allowed incarcerated individuals to earn 4.5 days worth of sentence credits for every 30 days served. This means that in a year, an individual could earn 54 days worth of credits. So in every year, it was possible to get close to two months of credits. However, in 2020 the General Assembly set out to change that.

What Change Was Expected from the 2020 Vote?

A major change was made to the sentence credit system in 2020. The General Assembly voted to expand the system to make it easier for individuals to earn sentence credits and to increase the amount of credit. Instead of only earning 4.5 sentence credits in a 30-day period, the new law would allow incarcerated people to earn as many as 15 sentence credits in a month.

If this were the only change, it would be huge. It would mean that thousands of incarcerated people had a chance to see their loved ones sooner. But it was actually an even more monumental vote than that. The law that was voted on wouldn’t only allow newly convicted people to earn more sentence credits, but it would also be applied retroactively to everyone serving a sentence.

This was to go into effect on July 1, 2022, and it would have reportedly allowed upwards of six thousand people to be released. This would be fantastic for many families, but a budget amendment in 2022 threw a monkey wrench into the process. Many inmates who were told they were going to be going free in July or August were suddenly told that was no longer the case. To understand why we need to look at the 2022 budget amendment and how sentence credits apply to violent crimes.

How Did the Amendment in 2022 Change This?

Sentence credits for persons convicted of violent crimes were never changed from 4.5 to 15 days. However, until this budget amendment was passed, a person convicted of a violent crime and a non-violent crime would get the 4.5 day credits calculated when serving the violent crime sentence, and could get the new 15 days credit calculations when serving the sentence for the non-violent crime. Serving time for one conviction then serving a sentence for another conviction is called serving “adjacent time”. For example, if someone were convicted of a violent assault and a fraud charge, they could get the 4.5 day credit when serving the sentence for the violent assault and 15 day credit when serving the sentence for the non-violent fraud. Obviously, getting the 15 days credit for some part of the overall sentence helps bring down the total amount of time to serve.

This amendment made it so that those who were serving adjacent time for violent crimes and non-violent crimes could not earn the 15 day sentence credits on any non-violent sentences. So now, that individual in the example above would no longer be able to earn sentence credits toward his fraud charges.

Will I Be Able to Earn Sentence Credits?

If you are facing charges and are worried about whether or not you’ll be able to earn sentence credits while incarcerated, the best thing to do is to reach out to an attorney that can help you avoid prison in the first place. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you to fight for your freedom.