By Brandon Jarvis

Virginia’s leaders are trying to walk the tightrope of keeping the population of incarcerated individuals safe from COVID-19 while also trying to ensure that violent offenders stay off the street. Governor Ralph Northam and Virginia Democrats have been the target of anger from Republican leaders after two separate criminal justice situations have transpired in recent weeks.

The Tragedy

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a man in Alexandria was released on bond by a judge prior to his trial. That man, Ibrahm E. Bouaichi, eventually murdered the woman who accused him of rape. He shot himself as police officers pursued him and he eventually died a few days later.

Circuit Court Judge Nolan Dawkins released Bouaichi to house arrest in April of 2020 after he was indicted in 2019 for rape, abduction, and strangulation. His victim, Karla Elizabeth Dominguez Gonzalez, an immigrant with no family in the country, testified against Bouaichi in December. His trial was delayed due to COVID-19. Judge Dawkins retired in June and has yet to comment on the tragedy.

Even though this was Judge Dawkins’ decision, Republicans are placing the blame on Governor Ralph Northam and Democrats. “This is a sad and horrifying story that I fear we could see more often if the policies Democrats are pushing nationally and here in Virginia are adopted,” said Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), a potential Republican nominee for Governor in 2021. “We have to stand up to these policies at the ballot box in 2020 — and 2021.”

Alexandria’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan L. Porter, a progressive Democrat, argued against releasing Bouaichi but was unsuccessful. “We strenuously argued that the presumption” against bond, Porter said to the Washington Post, “had not been overcome, given the facts of the case and the violent nature of the alleged offense.”

“I’ve made clear publicly and privately that while I think people that pose no danger to the community (like drug offenders) should be released during this pandemic, people like this alleged rapist and killer must remain behind bars,” said Mark Levine (D-Alexandria), a member of the House of Delegates.

The Report

An Inspector General report found that the Parole Board did not follow the proper process when they released a man convicted of killing a police officer in 1979. The report found that the chair of the Parole Board failed to meet multiple requirements to grant parole including notifying the victim’s family and failing to hear from individuals with concerns about his release.

Republicans are calling for the man, Vincent Martin, to return to prison and start over with what they say would be the correct parole process.

“I call on Governor Northam to direct the Department of Corrections to correct this outrageous failure and return Mr. Martin to custody so the parole process may begin again, this time with proper adherence to the Code of Virginia and Parole Board policies,” said the House of Delegates Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah).

Northam said in a press conference last week prior to the release of the report that he does not plan to make any changes to the current Parole Board. “Governor Northam has spoken with the new Chair of the Parole Board, and reiterated that he expects all notification procedures to be followed, period,” said the Governor’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky’s in a statement.

As elected officials try and place the blame for recent events, several civil rights groups have teamed up to help incarcerated individuals navigate the early-release process.

A New Coalition

A coalition of organizations has formed to provide legal representation to individuals who are eligible for early release after serving the majority of their time incarcerated. The General Assembly passed a budget amendment in April authorizing the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) to grant early release to some incarcerated individuals who had less than one year remaining on their sentence. Elliott Harding and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Governor Northam and several members of his administration resulting in a settlement that addressed health care and hygiene needs of those being held but promised an expanded and expedited review of petitions for conditional pardons. 

While both of these lawsuits provided the VDOC and Governor Northam with the resources to provide an early release to inmates with a conditional pardon, there was no funding allocated to provide those individuals with the legal representation to seek early release. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (VACDL), the ACLU of Virginia, Justice Forward Virginia, and the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) say they launched the Virginia Redemption Project to help fill that void. 

According to a press release from ACLU, the project will recruit, train and support volunteer lawyers to assist incarcerated individuals in submitting petitions to the governor for executive clemency (which in Virginia is called a conditional pardon), and for other available post-sentencing relief. Organizers say that the goal of the Virginia Redemption Project is to focus on ensuring that those who are most at risk of illness from COVID-19 and cannot afford a lawyer have access to a meaningful review of their case.

“People who are incarcerated are facing a major crisis. The virus is rapidly spreading in Virginia’s prison facilities, and incarcerated people are unable to take measures to safely socially distance or protect themselves like those in the general public,” said ACLU-VA Legal Director Eden Heilman. “Without intervention by the administration, people with serious medical issues unnecessarily locked up in prisons are most at risk of illness or even death. The Virginia Redemption Project will fill the need for people who are incarcerated with serious medical issues and who need help and representation to seek their safe release.”

The VDOC says that certain conditions for early release from their state facilities must be met in order for inmates to be considered eligible. Those conditions include how much time an individual has served and how much of that time served was ‘good behavior’.

VDOC also says that they have the resources to provide inmates with healthcare if they need it, so they require individuals seeking early-release to have a viable home plan and access to healthcare before receiving the conditional pardon, according to the VDOC Early Release plan.  “We have heard lots of complaints from people that their home plans are not being completed because they still have more than six months left on their sentence, even though our settlement agreement in Whorley v. Northam requires that the six-month requirement be waived and that any individual eligible for release through VDOC’s early release program be given a home plan,” said Meredith Mason, a spokesperson for the ACLU. 

“Virginia is an outlier among the fifty states in its lack of meaningful release options for sick and elderly prisoners—those people who are especially at risk of serious illness and death due to COVID-19,” said Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “We hear every day from incarcerated individuals and their loved ones who are living on the front lines of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on prisons and jails.  With this project, we hope to expand access to release for those who need it most desperately.”

Non-violent offenders that meet the rest of the criteria for early release are prioritized ahead of other incarcerated individuals according to the plan. VDOC says sex offenders will not be released early under any conditions.

The Virginia Redemption Project is working with offenders who have served the majority of their time and are seeking post-sentencing relief, however, early-release has become an emotional topic in Virginia in recent days leading to a partisan narrative being formed.

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