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Governor announces criminal justice reform agenda for Virginia General Assembly session

Staff report • Jan 6, 2020 at 9:30 AM

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced his proposed criminal justice reform agenda as the 2020 General Assembly Session nears its Jan. 9 start.

Northam’s legislative proposals include decriminalization of marijuana, parole reform, raising the felony larceny threshold, raising the age of juvenile transfer to adult court, and the permanent elimination of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines, fees, and court costs.

“All Virginians deserve access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” Northam said during a Friday press conference. “My proposed criminal justice reform legislation and budget initiatives will combat mass incarceration, increase supports for returning citizens, and ensure meaningful second chances for those who have paid their debts to society. This is a bold step towards a more just and inclusive commonwealth, and I look forward to working with the General Assembly to pass these measures into law.”

Northam said marijuana decriminalization would help deal with what studies show is a disproportionate share of marijuana arrests of African Americans compared to whites in Virginia. If legislation passes, simple marijuana possession arrests would be cleared from the records of persons previously convicted of the offenses.

Northam’s proposals also include raising the threshold of monetary or property value for a grand larceny charge from $500 to $1,000. Northam said the change would bring Virginia in line with other states’ larceny penalties and help ease barriers to offenders’ ability to get an education, job or housing.

While the General Assembly eliminated driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees in the 2019 budget bill, Northam said he wants to make the change permanent.

Northam’s proposals include expanded parole consideration for individuals sentenced between 1995 and the Fishback v. Commonwealth state Supreme Court case that found juries were not being informed about parole abolition’s impact on sentencing decisions.

Finally, Northam’s two-year budget makes significant investments in criminal justice reform. The proposed budget includes $4.6 million for pretrial and probation services, funding for a new public defender’s office in Prince William County, and additional public defender positions across the commonwealth to reduce caseloads. Additionally, the budget includes $2 million for pre-release and post-incarceration services.

“This administration continues to demonstrate its dedication to comprehensive criminal justice reform,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran. “The impact of this legislative package is substantial and transformative. Our parole reform bills will make many more offenders eligible for discretionary parole and the elimination of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fees and fines and non-driving related offenses will affect hundreds of thousands of people.”

Other details of Northam’s reform agenda include:

— Decriminalizing marijuana possession by creating a $50 civil penalty instead. Persons convicted of simple possession would have their criminal record cleared of the offense.

— Considering age in parole decisions. A person would be eligible for consideration of parole if they are at least 50 years old and have served 20 years, or are 55 years old and have served 15 years.

— Considering medical condition in parole decisions. A person would be eligible for consideration of parole if they are permanently incapacitated or terminally ill and pose no threat to public safety.

— Fairness in sentencing. Individuals sentenced by juries between 1995 and 2000 would be eligible for parole consideration. Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but juries were not instructed about this until five years later, following a court ruling.

— Ending suspended driver’s licenses. The current two-year budget eliminates driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees, but that expires when the new budget starts. This bill makes the change permanent.

— Ending suspended driver’s licenses for non-driving-related offenses for drug crimes, failing to pay jail fees and for driving off without paying for fuel. Those violations will continue to be enforced through the criminal code.

— Trying juveniles as adults. Legislation raises the age to 16 for a juvenile to be tried as an adult without court approval. Juveniles age 14 or older charged with certain crimes now can be tried as adults without court approval.

— Expunging criminal convictions and charges by expanding the category of individuals who can petition for Writs of Actual Innocence. This is possible now only in very narrow circumstances, which limits the ability of innocent people to clear their record or produce evidence of wrongful conviction.

— Credit for community service. Legislation would allow offenders to earn credit for community service during incarceration, which could be used to cover fines and court costs. This will reduce the amount of debt people have after they have served their sentence, which will ease their transition back into the community.

Budget proposals for Northam’s agenda include more than $16 million for:

— Fifty-nine new public defenders and $2.7 million for a public defender office in Prince William County.

— Expansion of pretrial and local probation services across the commonwealth.

— Pre-release and post-incarceration services to support the reintegration of adult offenders from local and state correctional facilities.

— Additional district court clerk positions.

— The Virginia Parole Board to develop release plans for offenders who are eligible for parole, to ensure returning citizens have stable support.