Groups and families celebrate implementation of law allowing early release for certain inmates • Virginia Mercury

Groups and families celebrate implementation of law allowing early release for certain inmates • Virginia Mercury

Santia Nance and Quadaire Patterson’s love story is entering a new chapter.

A law took effect last week that allowed certain incarcerated people to be released from prison for earned sentence credits. Patterson is now also earning good fiance points by “doing every dish” in the house since he moved out of prison and in with Nance. The couple’s long-fought-for chapter entailed years of political advocacy and maintaining hope.

“Opportunity is nothing without hope,” Patterson said as one of the featured speakers during a press conference at Virginia’s Capitol on Tuesday. “I relish the opportunity to be able to represent the incarcerated and all of my reentering brothers.”

He and Nance had gathered at Virginia’s Capitol on Tuesday with various prison reform advocacy organizations and Democratic lawmakers.

Patterson was among the people to be released last week. July 1 is when new laws typically take effect each year, but in this case, a four-year-old law was finally able to be implemented.

Earned sentence credits are applied to shorten inmates’ time behind bars. Incarcerated people can achieve them through things like good behavior, participation in programs and seeking educational advancement. Prison reform advocates stress that earned sentence credits help incentivize rehabilitation so that families can be reunited sooner.

Virginia’s legislature passed a law in 2020 that increased the number of credits inmates could earn and expanded it to people serving time for both violent and nonviolent offenses. It had a delayed start date for 2022, but that year Gov. Glenn Youngkin blocked his implementation through the state budget. It’s a law that Nance, through her work co-founding a group called Sistas iIn Prison Reform, has hoped for.

Organizations like Sistas in Prison Reform continued to advocate for its implementation. Before his release Patterson kept his fellow inmates in the loop on legislative processes, and he was also able to connect with Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Alexandria.

Signs stating “they earned it” are held by some participants at a gathering in Virginia’s Capitol to celebrate implementation of earned sentence credits for incarcerated people to shorten their time behind bars. Charlotte Rene Woods / Virginia Mercury

Boysko carried the Senate version of the bill in 2020. Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, had the House version — and his own lived experience as a formerly incarcerated person who has since gone on to become Virginia’s first Black Speaker of the House.

While the Democratic-controlled legislature was able to get the earned sentence credits through this year’s budget with Youngkin’s signature, Republican resistance remains.

Ahead of the celebratory gathering, Attorney General Jason Miyares issued a statement calling earned sentence credits a public safety risk.

“I believe in redemption and am a strong proponent for helping our returning citizens re-enter society to live productive lives. However, aggressive retroactive sentence reductions for violent criminals with a high risk of recidivism undermines our justice system and disregards victims,” Miyares wrote.

Miyares also wrote a letter earlier this year to lawmakers urging them to keep Youngkin’s budget language in place that would have blocked implementation of the 2020 law. He has used the influence of his office to advocate against various other criminal justice reform efforts in the state legislature.

Boysko bucked Miyares’ characterization of the legislation at Tuesday’s event, saying he and some other Republicans want to “get everybody worked up into a frenzy” ahead of next year’s state legislative elections.

“Data shows that earned sentence credits help reduce recidivism, no matter what he says,” Boysko said.

Next year, all 100 seats in Virginia’s House of Delegates will be up for election and Virginians will elect a new governor. With criminal justice reform often a Democratic-led issue, partisan control of the House or governorship could determine what future bills might succeed or fail.

Until then, recently released Virginians will be settling back into their unincarcerated lives. Patterson will continue his education with the hope of eventually becoming a lawyer.

Wedding plans are also on the horizon. Nance is ecstatic about having Patterson home with her and how their shared passion for advocacy is intrinsic to their love story.

“It really is a full circle moment to be standing here with him,” she said.