The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Gov. Youngkin dashed hopes by reneging on his second-chance promise

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Timothy Rumage and Aubrey “Mikey” Berryman are housed at Beaumont Correctional Center in Beaumont, Va. They are members of the Humanization Project.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Christian faith teaches him that whatever he has done to the least of these, he has done unto God. Yet this year, he subjected “the least of these” to an act of abject cruelty, dashing the hopes of thousands of Virginia’s most forgotten by reneging on a promise made two years earlier. That promise would have allowed many incarcerated people in the Department of Corrections to be released just a little bit early, provided they remained on perfect behavior and completed all programming offered to them. But in June, at Youngkin’s urging, this Earned Sentence Credit law (ESC) was largely repealed, two weeks before taking effect.

What made the repeal especially galling was that in April, Youngkin lauded Virginia’s criminal justice agencies for their rehabilitation and reentry services, proclaiming April “Second Chance Month.” Youngkin explicitly acknowledged that the vast majority of us will return to our communities — and return successfully, with the support of the very agencies he praised. Although this was at odds with Republican messaging during the 2021 campaign, it was refreshing and led some to believe he might abandon demagoguery and govern with policies informed by evidence.

ESC is one of those evidence-based policies a second-chances governor should support. Research shows that long sentences are counterproductive, driving mass incarceration by imprisoning people long after they could safely return home. Moreover, Youngkin apparently felt the Department of Corrections was prepared for the new approach, since it claims one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country. And lastly, incentives for rehabilitation simply make sense: Promoting personal development leads to better returning citizens and less recidivism.

By June, however, Youngkin’s tune had changed. Rather than championing second chances, he pivoted to demonizing incarcerated people, as though we weren’t even deserving of a first chance, let alone a second one. He amplified lies shared by legislators. And once the repeal succeeded, he smugly proclaimed it “a good day in Virginia” for “removing violent criminals’ ability to get off early and reoffend.

The repeal affected all nonviolent sentences being served by people who also had sentences for “violent” crime. Although proponents claimed this would impact only 560 people, that was just those who became eligible for release on July 1. The Department of Corrections has since confirmed that the repeal renders about 8,000 people ineligible for additional credits — about one-third of Virginia’s prison population.

We know prison isn’t intended to be easy, but the governor’s actions involved a cruelty that no one should have to endure.

Mikey’s family is devastated. Almost two decades ago, Mikey participated in a terrible plan, but even before it was complete, he felt the weight of his guilt and tried to save the victim’s life. That moral burden was the beginning of his road to redemption. After he was sentenced, he devoted his time in prison to turning his former self into a stranger.

After so many years working on himself simply because it was the right thing to do, the commonwealth promised to acknowledge Mikey’s hard work with an earlier release. Hard time makes you guarded and expect the worst, but Mikey finally allowed himself to treat hope as reality — his second chance was truly on the horizon. Mikey planned to open a graphic design business, start a nonprofit and, most important, reconnect with family. But in June, those dreams again became just that — dreams.

Folks like us and our families aren’t the only ones who will suffer from Youngkin’s decision: Our communities will as well. Think about it — he didn’t keep us in prison forever. He merely delayed our release, by months for some, by years for others. Either way, most are returning home relatively soon. But the incentive for rehabilitation is gone. If someone isn’t self-motivated, what’s in it for them? And if they don’t work on themselves, they’ll be less prepared to parent their children, enter the workforce, get an education, maintain a residence and stay clean — precisely the things that keep returning citizens out of poverty, out of addiction and, ultimately, out of trouble. Returning citizens who’ve reformed themselves ought to be Virginia’s success stories, who teach us redemption is possible. Instead, Youngkin jeopardized public safety by making incarcerated people less prepared to return home.

Youngkin’s faith doesn’t just teach him to care for the forgotten and vulnerable; it also has something to say about keeping one’s word. According to Proverbs 11:3, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.” We listened to the governor during his second-chances media tour. We heard him praise rehabilitative services. We trusted him, just as we trusted the legislature in 2020. But we now know the truth — that his words were duplicitous. At the same time he promised us a second chance, he was seeking to deprive us of exactly that. We urge Youngkin and the 70 legislators who joined him to rectify the mistake they made and restore to us the hope they dashed.

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