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Prisoners may stay longer than expected if lawmakers approve proposed budget amendment

A portrait of Lorraine and Dakota Grogg. He's in prison but hoping for early release.
Lorraine Grogg
A portrait of Lorraine and Dakota Grogg. He's in prison but hoping for early release.

When 34-year-old Dakota Grogg was arrested for robbery, he was still on probation for a drug charge that landed him in prison for a year, so in court he got eight years for the robbery and another four for violating the terms of probation. Police also charged him with drug possession, for which he got four more years.

So his wife spends much of her weekend in the car.

"I’m able to visit once a week for one hour. That's all you get. I drive five hours there," she explains. "I meet with him for one hour and I drive five hours back."

Under a law passed in 2020, he could get credit for good behavior and apply those days to the sentences he got for the non-violent crimes. Lorraine thinks he’d be out in 2025.

"We have a house in Harrisonburg that’s waiting for us to move into. He’s got a job ready for him to come out to.

And he might be able to get treatment for the medical condition she says got him in trouble in the first place – drug addiction.

She claims he’s been unable to get help in prison, and – frankly – drugs are widely available there.

Also hoping for an early release, his two kids who are now in their teens.

"They’re definitely waiting for their father to come home. He’s definitely missed out on a lot of good time with them."

But Grogg would stay in prison until October of 2030 if Republicans have their way. They’re lining up in support of a proposed budget amendment that would make inmates who’ve committed a violent offense like robbery ineligible for good time credits, even for their non-violent crimes.

Jessica Coomer is also waiting for her fiance to get out.

"I hurt for him, because I know how ready he is to come home," she says.

He’s got three and a half years left on an 18-year sentence for robbery, breaking and entering and receiving stolen goods.

"He was young, stupid, ignorant, hung out with the wrong people," Coomer explains. "Since3 then he’s grown up in prison."

Coomer voted for Glenn Youngkin and is disappointed that he proposed this amendment.

"He even said that he believes in second chances, so why not let them have their second chance, to show us who they are now and what they’ve learned."

Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, with a non-profit called Interfaith Action for Human Rights, is alarmed by the prospect of refusing extra good-time credits in a state that doesn’t offer parole to those who committed crimes after 1995.

"There's no reason to go back and amend this bill. This back door amendment is unacceptable, and we plan to hold everyone that we know was a participant, on both sides of the aisle, accountable."

Thirty-five hundred prisoners were expecting to get out this summer.

"Most of these individuals went through re-entry programs, and their families have been notified," she says. "Children have been notified Mommy or Daddy is coming home."

In Arlington, public defender Brad Haywood says support for this amendment might be a matter of misunderstanding. The state, for example, considers robbery a violent crime.

“If somebody went to a convenience store with a loaded firearm and physically assaulted the clerk and took a whole lot of money, that’s robbery, but also a neighborhood bully pushes a younger kid and takes his headphones, that’s also robbery in Virginia," he explains. "Both of those were subject to the same punishment, which is five years to life in prison.”

Malicious wounding would also disqualify a prisoner from the expanded good time program.

“You know malicious wounding can be shanking someone in the gut, causing them to go to the hospital," Haywood says, "but it could also be punching someone once and breaking their nose.”

He adds that about a thousand prisoners would, initially, be denied the good time credits they were expecting. Supporters of the change would have you believe they’re dangerous criminals.

“When you hear some people talk about this, like Rob Bell for example, they talk about it as if it were a whole bunch of people who were convicted of murder and rape who are going to get out.”

In fact, he says, fewer than ten percent are in for those crimes. Most were convicted of robbery.

“Of those robbery convictions, the vast majority of them didn’t include weapons and I don’t think included injury either.”

So he has encouraged people like Coomer and Grogg to take action.

“We’re sending e-mails, we’re making calls, we’re requesting meetings – not allowing this to happen in the back room, which is what seems to be happening right now.”

Democrats could reject the amendment in the senate, but some who were recently drawn into new, more conservative districts, might be tempted to go along.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief