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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske May 20, 2020

Did Va. Democrats OK an early release plan for many violent inmates?

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, says Democrats in the General Assembly have opened prison gates for the early release of thousands of violent felons.

"VA Democrats authorized for early release over 4,000 violent felons, 60% of which are incarcerated for violent offenses," he posted on his Facebook page on April 28. 

Freitas repeated the charge that day at a virtual town hall meeting, laying the blame on Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. "There was one governor’s recommendation that came down where he was advocating for the option of early release for over 4,000 people that have been incarcerated," he said. "Sixty percent of the people that he was advocating be eligible for the program were actually incarcerated for violent offenses."

. We fact-checked the statements by Freitas, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the Seventh District congressional seat held by Democrat Abigail Spanberger.

His statements are based on a budget amendment the Democratic-led General Assembly approved on April 22 at Northam’s request. Concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons, Northam asked the legislature to allow the Department of Corrections to release inmates with less than a year left on their sentences. The emergency leniency does not apply to inmates convicted of capital murder or sexually violent crimes.

Freitas did not respond to three requests we made for his source on the number of inmates who would become eligible for early release and the percentage who had committed violent crimes. His information likely came from Del. Robert Bell, R-Albemarle, who got data from the Department of Corrections and shared it with colleagues.

Numbers

The department said 4,618 inmates will enter the last year of their  sentences by April 30, 2021. Of them, 2,933 - or 64% - are considered violent offenders under parole abolition laws passed by the General Assembly in 1995. 

We’ll subtract 172 inmates convicted of sexual crimes and ineligible to go early.  That leaves 4,446 inmates who would be eligible for early release. Of them, 2,761 inmates - or 62% - are legally classified as violent offenders. Among their ranks:

The Department of Corrections uses a more lenient definition of violent crimes for sorting inmates. Under its terms, the offenses of inmates who could be freed early breaks down this way:

  • 1,928 committed violent crimes, or 42%;

  • 1,606 committed property crimes, or 35%;

  • 1,080 convicted of drug-related or public order crimes, or 23%; and

  •  4 inmates’ who are unclassified.  

Not all eligible inmates will get out early. The DOC says each eligible person will be screened. Among other things, the department will consider an inmate’s crime, health, conduct in prison, recidivism risk and plans for work and shelter if released. As of May 18, 195 people have been freed early.

DOC statistics show as of May 19, 900 inmates and 73 prison employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Five inmates have died from the virus.

Freitas, during his town hall podcast said he and other GOP lawmakers are open to an emergency early release of people convicted of "minor crimes," but not violent offenders.

Our ruling

Freitas says, "VA Democrats authorized for early release over 4,000 inmates, 60% of which are incarcerated for violent offenses." He’s talking about a budget amendment the Democratic-run legislature muscled through at Northam’s request to combat a COVID-19 outbreak in prisons.

Freitas’ numbers are good, but his statement lacks context. He didn’t mention - in his Facebook post or during his town hall broadcast - that all of these inmates will be less than a year away from finishing their sentence. They’ll getting out soon anyway, regardless of whether they’re granted early release.

So we rate his statement Mostly True.

 

Our Sources

Del. Nick Freitas, Facebook post, April 28, 2020.

Freitas, comments at virtual town hall, April 2020 (1:30 mark).

Gov. Ralph Northam, Budget amendment 21, 2020 session.

Legislative Information System, House and Senate votes on state budget amendment 21, April 22, 2020.

Virginia Department of Corrections, data on state budget amendment 21, April 20, 2020.

DOC, Press release, April 24, 2020.

DOC, "COVID-19 Response, Inmate Early Release Plan," accessed May 15, 2020.

DOC, "Coronavirus Updates," accessed May 20, 2020. 

Telephone interview with Del. Robert Bell, May 15, 2020. 

Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, news conference, April 10, 2020 (27:40 mark).

Code of Virginia, § 17.1-805, Section C; accessed May 15, 2020.

 

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