Virginia Redemption Project works toward early release of inmates with medical issues

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A collaborative effort involving several justice organizations will recruit, train, and support volunteer lawyers to assist incarcerated individuals to submit petitions to the governor for executive clemency.

The Virginia Redemption Project launched on Thursday, stating as its core focus ensuring that those who are most at risk of illness from COVID-19 and who cannot afford a lawyer have access to 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. Without intervention by the administration, people with serious medical issues unnecessarily locked up in prisons are most at risk of illness or even death,” said ACLU-VA Legal Director Eden Heilman. “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 partnership includes the ACLU, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Justice Forward Virginia, and the Legal Aid Justice Center.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a budget amendment in April authorizing the Virginia Department of Corrections to grant early release to some incarcerated individuals who had less than one year remaining on their sentence. While this has brought relief to some individuals, many more individuals who can be safely released remain incarcerated.

In May, a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Virginia and Charlottesville attorney Elliott Harding relating to the continued confinement of individuals at high risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a settlement agreement, which not only addressed health care and hygiene needs of those being held, but promised expanded and expedited review of petitions for conditional pardons.

While the remedial measures in the settlement provide hope for post-sentencing relief for thousands of vulnerable people at high risk, neither the settlement nor the legislature has provided any funding, resources, or other mechanisms to provide representation to those seeking release.

The coalition was formed to address this need.

“Through NACDL’s extensive experience in supporting clemency and compassionate release projects, including Clemency Project 2014 during the Obama administration, the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project, the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, as well as other initiatives that are a part of NACDL’s Return to Freedom Project, NACDL is uniquely positioned to help with these immediate release efforts,” explained NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer. “Working with our partners, NACDL aims to make the promise of redemption a reality for as many qualified candidates in Virginia’s prisons as possible.”

“The Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is proud to join in the Virginia Redemption Project to assist incarcerated persons who are vulnerable to COVID-19 in seeking early release,” said Shawn Stout, Esq., VACDL Board Member and VACDL Emergency Response Committee Member. “The Commonwealth has not done nearly enough to protect incarcerated persons and the communities around them from the spread of COVID-19, and the virus has continued to sweep through Virginia’s prisons, jails, and detention centers. The Virginia Redemption Project will help move the Commonwealth in the right direction by ensuring meaningful review for many more people who should be released.”

“Virginia’s jails and prisons are currently dealing with the effects of COVID-19 and mass incarceration, which has proven to be a deadly combination,” says Bryan Kennedy, Policy Director for Justice Forward Virginia. “This project will prove to our elected officials that many people who are currently incarcerated can be released, which will improve public health at no risk to public safety.”

“Virginia is an outlier among the 50 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.”

If you are an attorney licensed to practice in Virginia and you would like to volunteer to take on one or more petitions through the Project, please click here.

If you are seeking the assistance of the Project, click here.


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