South Boston resident Shawn Barksdale is a small-business owner, podcast host and proud advocate for criminal justice reform — he also has the lived experience of having been formerly incarcerated.
On a conviction for armed robbery, he served 15 years in prison. While there, he began to build his résumé by taking advantage of various trade skill courses and completing his General Education Diploma. Since reentering society, he has been passionate about connecting with other formerly incarcerated people and advocating for those who are still behind bars.
“It is so important to me because there are so many men and women that have been left behind,” Barksdale said.
So, he joined members of the American Civil Liberties Union to support Senate Bill 842 from Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, that would allow inmates who have served at least 15 years of their term to petition a court to suspend any unserved time they have left. The bill is colloquially referred to as “Second Look” legislation.
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The measure did not clear the GOP-led House Courts of Justice Committee last year after a subcommittee recommended its defeat on a 5-3 party-line vote.
Current state law allows people to have their sentences reduced through a good conduct allowance, but Petersen’s bill would allow people the possibility to have their unserved time suspended. A judge would determine whether the sentence should be modified.
“I know that change can happen because I was a person that people said ‘you’re lost, you’ll never be able to reform’ and I showed them differently,” Barksdale said.
Paulettra James, of the organization Sistas in Prison Reform, said the bill allows people to “be seen for more than their worst mistake.”
When a judge takes up the petition, there will also be opportunity for victims of that person’s crime as well as the prosecutor to have input.
James noted that the legislation “creates an opportunity” for people but doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone would be released.
“This bill is not a break. You know, it doesn’t guarantee that the individual is going to get out early. It doesn’t guarantee that their petition is going to be approved,” James said. “But it is going to allow the opportunity for them to get a second chance.”
A longtime advocate, her organization met with Petersen when he crafted the bill.
Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, chairs the House courts committee and voted against the measure last year in the subcommittee. He could not be reached by the time of this publication to discuss if his stance has changed.
James said she recently spoke with Bell and that he took her card.
“We’re not going to give up on trying to get him to change his mind,” she said.
Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, has expressed support of the bill and says she will vote for it if it makes its way to the House of Delegates. She and Petersen are hoping to build more consensus around the matter.
The bill will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee sometime soon. If it clears the committee, it would continue to a full Senate vote.
Should the bill clear the House and Senate, it would go to Gov. Glenn Youngkin. A spokesperson for the governor said he “will review the legislation” if it comes to his desk.
Charlotte Rene Woods (804) 649-6254
@CharlotteWords on Twitter