PRESS RELEASE FROM NACDL, VACDL, the ACLU of Virginia, Justice Forward Virginia and the Legal Aid Justice Center, August 6, 2020
Coalition Launches Virginia Redemption Initiative, Expanding NACDL’s Return to Freedom Project
Washington, DC (August 6, 2020) 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), today announced the launch of the Virginia Redemption Project.
The Project will recruit, train, and support volunteer lawyers to assist incarcerated individuals to submit petitions to the governor for executive clemency (which in Virginia is called a conditional pardon), and for other available post-sentencing relief. A conditional pardon is an act by the governor to modify a sentence. Individuals granted a conditional pardon are given terms and conditions for early release which, if violated, can result in re-incarceration. At its core, the Virginia Redemption Project is focused on 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.
On April 22, 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed a budget amendment 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. While this has brought relief to some individuals, many more individuals who can be safely released remain incarcerated. In May 2020, 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. This 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.”
“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.”
“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 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.”
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, please click here.
This is a Project of NACDL, VACDL, the ACLU of Virginia, Justice Forward Virginia, and the Legal Aid Justice Center.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.
The Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (VACDL) is a statewide organization of over 600 attorneys whose practice is primarily focused on the representation of those accused of criminal violations. Founded in 1992 as the Virginia College of Criminal Defense Attorneys, VACDL changed its name in 2002 to reflect its affiliation and strong ties to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. VACDL's mission is to improve the quality of justice in Virginia by seeking to ensure fairness and equality before the law.
The ACLU of Virginia promotes civil liberties and civil rights for everyone in the Commonwealth through public education, litigation and advocacy with the goal of securing freedom and equality for all. For more information on the ACLU of Virginia, go to www.acluva.org.
Justice Forward Virginia is a non-partisan advocacy organization that fights for criminal legal system reform in Virginia. JFV works with legislators and other advocates to improve the laws of the Commonwealth to make our criminal legal system one that actually does justice for all who are brought into it.
The Legal Aid Justice Center partners with communities and clients to achieve justice by dismantling systems that create and perpetuate poverty. Justice means racial justice, social justice, and economic justice. Learn more at www.justice4all.org.