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Gov. Northam seeks early release for nearly 2,000 inmates to fight spread of the coronavirus

Only those who exhibited good behavior, don’t pose a threat to the public would be released

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures during a news conference at the Capitol Wednesday April 8, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Northam gave an update on his COVID-19 plans. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures during a news conference at the Capitol Wednesday April 8, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Northam gave an update on his COVID-19 plans. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

RICHMOND, Va. – Nearly 2,000 prisoners with a year or less remaining on their sentences could be eligible for early release under a proposal from Virginia Gov. Northam designed to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Northam announced Friday at a news conference that he is adding an amendment to the state budget that would give the Department of Corrections authority to release inmates with one year or less remaining on their sentences. Northam said only inmates who exhibited good behavior and do not pose a threat to the public would be released.

The plan would not go into effect unless the General Assembly approved the amendment at its upcoming April 22 session.

In the meantime, Northam said the administration would work on the logistics of such a release, which he said would be a significant undertaking. Inmates scheduled for release are usually placed on re-entry plans to ensure they have somewhere to go when they are released and have a 90-day supply of medications, as examples, Northam said.

Brian Moran, the state's secretary of public safety, said fewer than 2,000 inmates would be eligible. The state's inmate population typically hovers around 30,000.

Moran also said he expects the General Assembly will pass the amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which has pushed for an even broader release of inmates, criticized Northam's proposal, and said he could use his clemency power to act immediately without waiting for the General Assembly.

"(H)e's punting responsibility to the legislature, leaving people exposed and in dangerous conditions for longer than necessary," said Claire Gastañaga, the chapter's executive director. "How many more people will be infected or die as he waits for the legislature to act? What will happen if the legislature doesn't agree with his proposal?"

In other news related to the coronavirus:

  • Northam appointed Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy commissioner of health, to head up a new task force that will address the needs of long-term care facilities. Northam said nursing homes and senior living facilities are especially vulnerable and “we have a special obligation to protect them.”
    • Friday’s announcement comes after a Richmond-area facility, Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center, said Thursday that the death toll related to an outbreak there reached 39.
    • Long-term care facilities, like prisons, are particularly vulnerable to virus outbreaks because of the close quarters in which residents live and their susceptibility to disease. Forlano said long-term care facilities account for 45 of 82 coronavirus outbreaks that Virginia has tracked so far.
  • Northam said that while there is good news in Virginia and nationally that efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus are working, it was too early to think about relaxing restrictions.

The increase in cases is in part a function of increased testing. But state and federal authorities have expressed concern that the D.C. metropolitan area, including the northern Virginia suburbs, could become a national hotspot for COVID-19 cases.

Indeed, northern Virginia accounts for more than 40% of Virginia cases, a share disproportionately higher than its population. Still, northern Virginia lags in cases compared to the District of Columbia itself and the Maryland suburbs.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.


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