RICHMOND, Va. -- Gov. Ralph Northam is proposing an amendment to Virginia's budget that would give the Department of Corrections (DOC) the authority to release inmates with less than a year remaining on their sentences amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in high-density prison facilities.
"We're concerned for everyone in congregate settings, including those in our Department of Corrections," Northam said. "They must have demonstrated good behavior and not be a threat to public safety."
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said less than 2,000 of the state's inmates would qualify under the proposal.
"That [number] sometimes fluctuates a little bit depending on who's released, because we release approximately 1,000 prisoners per month based on their release dates," Moran said.
Moran: Less than 2,000 inmates fall under this category.— Cam Thompson (@CamThompsonCBS6) April 10, 2020
Advocates with the Legal Aid Justice Center, who rallied outside the Richmond Justice Center Friday, said places like jails, detention centers and juvenile correctional facilities can increase the spread of illnesses like COVID-19.
The group said releasing prisoners is one way to reduce the spread of the virus during the global health crisis.
"Let as many people as possible go from our correctional facilities," one advocate said. Whether they are released outright or under home surveillance using electronic monitoring, that will let staff be safer, too."
Lawmakers will vote on the measure when the General Assembly reconvenes on April 22.
"We anticipate the legislature acting favorably on this proposal. It would become effective immediately and it would last for the duration of the governor's executive order," Moran said.
As a result, Northam said the DOC will start immediately planning how "these individuals may safely be released."
Northam acknowledged that re-entry planning typically takes months.
"Re-entry planning includes ensuring the released person has somewhere to go and has the medications they need for three months," Northam said. "We know there are fewer economic resources available, and fewer rehabilitation and treatment centers taking on new clients."
Northam reiterated the DOC would be tasked with making sure only prisoners who "do not pose a threat to society or the safety of others" are eligible for early release.
"Advocates and community organizations always play an important role in supporting people when they returned to the community," Northam said. "That role was even more critical now. And I ask that they continue to offer all services possible to help people who are released."
Also Friday, Virginia authorities reported more than 460 new cases of COVID-19, the largest one-day increase so far in the coronavirus pandemic.
The Virginia Department of Health now reports more than 4,500 positive tests for the coronavirus in the state. The death count has increased from 109 to at least 121.
Most patients with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms. However, in a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can lead to more severe illness, including death, particularly among those who are older or those who have chronic medical conditions.
COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person.
Virginia health officials urged the following precautions:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.Stay home when you are sick.
- Avoid contact with sick people.Avoid non-essential travel.