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VA Supreme Court ruling could mean early release for hundreds of state prisoners

 The ACLU's legal team outside Virginia's S
The ACLU's legal team outside Virginia's Supreme Court

In July of 2012, 33-year-old Stephen Prease – a veteran of the Iraq War -- got into a fight with his wife in Botetourt County. A neighbor called police, and Prease ended up in a shoot-out with officers. No one got hurt, but he was charged with three counts of attempted murder and sentenced to more than a decade in prison. The law said people who committed murder were not eligible for good time credit –- early release linked to good behavior behind bars. It said nothing about attempted murder, and ACLU attorney Vishal Agraharkar argued the AG was wrong in denying good time for attempts or conspiracies to commit crimes.

“Mr. Prease had been initially told that he would be released as soon as the law went into effect, and then he was told just before he was set to be released that he would no longer be released.”

Virginia’s Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU, and Prease – who may have been suffering a mental health crisis at the time of his crime – is expected to be released soon.

“The ruling itself applies only to Mr. Prease’s case and only to his conviction," Agraharkar says. "We’re hoping that the department of Corrections will do the right thing and not require a separate habeus petition from each and every person.”

In September, the state’s highest court will take up another case – this time involving a budget amendment that denied good time to inmates who had committed a violent crime and a non-violent offense. Take Jessica Kumer’s fiancée – convicted of robbery, burglary and receiving stolen goods.

“He was 18 when he did all this, and since then he’s grown up in prison,” she contends.

If the court sides with the ACLU in September, he too could be released early.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief