Joint project needs attorneys willing to volunteer their time
RICHMOND-Qualifying for a conditional pardon doesn’t help if you don’t know how to file a petition. That’s a problem many Virginia inmates face right now. They don’t know the right paperwork to file and can’t afford a lawyer to do it for them. That’s where the Virginia Redemption Project steps in.
The VRP is a joint operation, a partnership between the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (VACDL), the ACLU of Virginia, FAMM, Justice Forward Virginia, and the Legal Aid Justice Center. It recruits, trains and offers resources to pro bono attorneys assisting inmates with their petitions. Right now, the group has a specific focus when it comes to potential candidates.
“The Virginia Redemption Project currently focuses on those prisoners who are most at risk for complications from contracting COVID-19 based on a variety of risk factors,” said Steven Logan, project manager for NACDL’s State Clemency Project. .
Eligible prisoners submit their appeals directly to the Governor’s Office, which grants conditional pardons if their petitions are accepted. Individuals granted such a pardon may have their active term of incarceration reduced and must follow specific terms and conditions. If those conditions are violated, the inmate goes back to jail.
Also, to be clear, the offer is only open to anyone currently serving a Virginia state sentence for non-capital offenses. This is also different from the Department of Correction’s (DOC) early release program. The DOC version is only open to prisoners who have one year or less left on their sentences. Also, it’s only in effect during Virginia’s current state of emergency.
Each petition is individually managed
With the VRP, there’s no set timeline from application to release. It varies from case to case.
“Our timeline is up to the Governor,” Logan said. “Each vulnerable prisoner must individually petition Governor Northam’s office directly and the decision he or she receives carries specific conditions based on that prisoner’s situation. The timeline for each applicant is up to the Governor based on the circumstances and complexity of the individual petition.”
Katherine Jensen, NACDL Virginia Redemption Project Resource Counsel, says there are many moving parts to each petition. Her role in this project includes creating and managing a clearinghouse of shared resources to support the pro bono attorneys.
“We collect and disseminate information and resources including enlisting the services and support of legal paraprofessionals, social workers, physicians and health care workers,” Jensen said. “These professionals provide a variety of support and information ranging from assistance in relocating and resettling the petitioners, to reading and interpreting their medical records, finding them employment, and reintegrating them into society.”
She acknowledged some valuable lessons have already been gleaned from the models of similar programs in other states.
“The Virginia Redemption Project is benefitting from other states’ experiences with earlier programs in terms of how to handle processes, expectations and resources,” she explained. “For example, we can provide our participating attorneys with resources like sample letters and language guidance on how to craft the necessary documents for each petitioner.”
For more information about the project and to learn more about volunteering, visit nacdlmobilize.org or email: VAredemptionproject@nacdl.org.
Jackie Fishman is a freelance reporter for Dogwood.