FILE - Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures during a news conference Wednesday, April 8, 2020, at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. 

(The Center Square) – A criminal justice reform advocacy group is urging Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to use his pardon power generously before leaving office at the end of his term in January.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which works to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws nationally, wrote a letter to Northam and asked him to grant full or partial clemency to deserving inmates who have reformed while in prison and for those who were given excessive sentences for their crimes.

A Virginia law from the 1990s prohibiting discretionary parole limits options for felons who received harsh penalties, leaving a pardon as one of the only options remaining. The state also has various mandatory minimum sentences on the books, which require a certain length of incarcerated time for specific crimes.

“As you know, Virginia has a large and costly prison population but does not have parole,” FAMM President Kevin Ring wrote in the letter. “Clemency is the only way home early for the many people in state prisons who have aged, matured, improved themselves, and no longer need to be incarcerated. People change and grow, but Virginia’s lengthy sentences and lack of parole do not allow for second chances. A sentence that might have made sense once may no longer be necessary to keep the public safe.”

State lawmakers passed a series of criminal justice reform laws in 2020 but failed to reach an agreement on legislation to drastically reduce mandatory minimum sentences. Ring noted Northam has the executive authority to offer conditional pardons to inmates whose sentences were subject to those laws, which would reduce the court-imposed sentences.

Ring said conditional pardons would reunite families who still are struggling from the pandemic and bring back partners, parents, employees and taxpayers.

The governor granted posthumous pardons earlier this week for the Martinsville Seven, which was a group of young Black men convicted of raping a white woman. He said the men were not granted adequate due process and received racially-biased sentences.

While Ring approved of the governor’s decision to grant the men a pardon, he said more work needs to be done for people who are still alive in prison.

“Clemency is for the living, not just the dead,” Ring said. “Pardoning the Martinsville Seven is a way to right a decades-old wrong, but there are many people deserving of clemency in Virginia’s prisons right now. Jesse Dunaway will die in prison for committing a drug offense unless he receives clemency, and he’s just one of many people serving unjust sentences in state prisons now. Governor Northam should grant conditional pardons to people like Jesse, and reunite them with their families today.”

Northam has granted 604 pardons during his term, which is more than the nine previous governors combined.

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and West Virginia for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.