Riverside Regional Jail officials have been placing inmates into work release programs without notifying or receiving authorization from the judges who sentenced them, prompting Chesterfield County's six circuit court judges to demand the practice be immediately stopped.

In a sternly worded letter dated July 7, the six judges instructed Col. Jeffery L. Newton, superintendent of Riverside Regional Jail, that the placement of inmates into alternative programs such as work release "is not authorized by law absent an order from the court."

Consequently, the judges ordered that any of the inmates placed into work release whom the jail had identified in an earlier letter to the court were no longer authorized to participate, and their involvement "must immediately be rescinded." At that time, the work release revocation affected 15 inmates who were being held for Chesterfield.

"The Chesterfield County Circuit Court under no circumstances will allow these assignments to be undertaken now or in the future," according to the judges' letter, which was obtained from Riverside Regional Jail in a Freedom of Information Act request. "It is now the policy of the court that unless a subsequent order is entered authorizing the admission of a defendant into an alternative program, the defendant will not be deemed qualified for any such program."

"This court expects its orders to be followed," the judges added. "It is extremely difficult for us to believe your facility houses any of our prisoners without an appropriate order having been received."

The blunder was not exclusive to Chesterfield. Riverside, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in June, had been placing inmates into work release programs without notification or authorization from judges in the other six localities in serves. They include the cities of Petersburg, Hopewell and Colonial Heights, and the counties of Charles City, Prince George and Surry.

It was unclear how long the practice had been in effect.

In a July 13 letter to Chesterfield's circuit judges, Newton said he appointed a new director of programs and community corrections in March, and that official discovered during a program review that Riverside "was not in complete compliance" with Virginia law as it pertained to notifying the courts about inmates granted work release.

"I assure you it was not our intention to give the impression that staff were usurping the court's authority regarding the placement of an offender in the work release program," Newton wrote in his letter, obtained through a FOIA request to the jail. Newton boldly highlighted and underscored that sentence. He also listed four corrective measures in response to the judges' directive.

Newton, who was hired in 2011 as Riverside's second superintendent, has refused repeated requests to publicly discuss the issue, answer basic questions about the program or provide any perspective that might clarify the jail's role. He responded to a FOIA request by releasing all requested correspondence that he or members of his staff sent to or received from Chesterfield Circuit Court or its judges.

But he refused to release letters to the judges from the jail that requested they approve individual inmates for work release, or the judges' responses, saying those letters are exempt from "mandatory disclosure" under FOIA because they relate to the imprisonment of an individual inmate. That means that Newton can, but is not legally compelled, to disclose them.

Likewise, Newton refused for the same reason to provide copies of records showing the inmates being held for Chesterfield whom the jail deemed eligible for work release during the last two years.

In a July 31 email to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Newton indicated he would comment on the work release issue after he met Aug. 3 with Chesterfield's six circuit judges. But he refused to do so after the meeting, and in an Aug. 23 email that followed a second FOIA request by The Times-Dispatch, he wrote, "I have indicated from the beginning of your inquiry I am not willing to make any comment. My position on the issue remains the same."

Yet Newton wrote, "Please contact me if you have any further questions" in his response to the newspaper's second FOIA request.

Work release programs allow eligible inmates to have a full-time job and go to work each day and report back to the jail after work. Generally, only inmates convicted of non-violent crimes are eligible to participate.

Riverside can place inmates into a work release program sponsored by either the jail or the Virginia Department of Corrections. In either case, it is a local or regional jail's responsibility to notify the sentencing court, according to state law.

In his letter to the judges, Newton said the notification error may have been the result of a "disconnect" and suggested that state corrections officials were required to notify the courts when inmates held for the state at Riverside were placed in a DOC-sponsored program. But a DOC spokesperson cited the Virginia code section that says local or regional jails are required to notify the courts.

The issue came to light earlier this year simply by chance, when Chesterfield Circuit Court Judge Frederick G. Rockwell III learned that a defendant he convicted and sentenced to jail "was actually out on work release, which wasn't in compliance with his order," a law enforcement source said. "And that caused him to look deeper, and everybody else look deeper, and that's what unraveled the whole thing."

The identity of that inmate and his or her conviction and sentence couldn't be determined. Chesterfield's judges declined to make any additional comments to what was stated in their letter, said Tricia Muller, the court's administrator of judicial operations.

Whether it was intentional or not, Riverside's failure to notify the courts or receive their authorization is a serious breach of judicial protocol and is effectively "usurping a judge's role and power and responsibility," said Paul Crane, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia who now teaches criminal law at the University of Richmond's School of Law.

"Judges are the ones given the authority to determine what somebody's sentence should be," Crane said.

By contrast, jailers have discretion in "small ways," which include determining where an inmate will be housed and what programs they might be eligible to participate in, Crane said.

But the jail has no authority to determine whether an inmate should remain jailed or be granted work release. "That's a fairly fundamental change," Crane said.

Crane said the judicial system depends in large part on people complying with a judge's order. "And I would imagine that for a judge, that's something that's always on their mind."

"There's always sort of a concern of a slippery slope," Crane added. A judge may think, "If you're not following my order on this small thing, then maybe you're not going to follow my next order, when it's something that's a little bit bigger."

Crane said he was struck by the strong, explicit language the Chesterfield judges used in their letter to Newton.

"They seemed very upset by what happened," he said. "They wanted no wiggle room. And from their perspective, they had an expectation that their orders were being followed and learned that they weren't."

The letter "also seemed to be setting a tone not just for this particular instance," Crane said, but to reinforce their concern for any potential future issues or "other contexts where something similar might be happening."

In their letter, the judges advised Newton they would add specific language to all their future orders so their intent would be clear. "The defendant shall not be allowed to participate in any programs through the jail or the Department of Corrections unless specifically addressed in this Order or an Order entered separately after notification to the Court of the defendant's eligibility," the judges wrote.

The judges closed with this advisory: "We trust it should be extremely clear that further incidents of this type will not take place in the future. Failure to comply with our Court Orders will serve as a basis for appropriate remedial action."

Judge W. Allen Sharrett, chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit who sits in Hopewell, Prince George and Surry - which are serviced by Riverside - said any concerns he had about the jail's failure to notify him of inmates granted work release were alleviated by Newton's "immediate attention" to this matter. Chesterfield's judges copied Sharrett in their letter to Newton.

"My impression was that the jail has discontinued its procedure of granting work release without prior notification with regard to inmates from all of the jurisdictions it serves, and I'm now receiving a list (of inmates deemed eligible for work release)," Sharrett said in a email response to The Times-Dispatch. "Hence, I didn't think it was necessary to take any additional action, as I am satisfied with the manner by which the situation has been both addressed and, hopefully, resolved."

Judge Paul W. Cella, chief judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit, which includes Petersburg, the only locality in the 11th Circuit to be serviced by Riverside, declined to comment on the issue. Judge Michael E. McGinty, former chief judge of the 9th Judicial Circuit, which includes Surry, the only locality in the 9th Circuit to be serviced by the jail, did not respond to an email for comment.

The jail's failure to notify the judges appears to have been "going on for some time," Crane said.

"Given the judges' reaction upon learning this information, and how quick and strong the reaction was, I think we can reasonably infer that the judges were unaware (of the jail's non-compliance) for however long it was going on," Crane said. "They were unaware for the duration."

The jail is located in Prince George County and is governed by an authority comprised of representatives from each of the seven localities it serves.

Surry County Administrator Tyrone Franklin, the authority's chairman, said the work release issue was discussed at the panel's last meeting "and there was an understanding that came out of that, and things are moving forward.” Franklin couldn't provide specifics because he was on vacation that day and didn't attend.

"I'm glad that (the judges) were able to point that out and kind of help us with our policy, so to speak," Franklin said. "And I’m glad we were responsive and adhering to those, and I think at this point there will be some changes made to the policy to make sure we do things the way they were intended to.”

To view the original story by Mark Bowes with the Richmond Time Dispatch, please click here.