Virginia’s Recent Criminal Justice Reforms Aren’t Nearly Enough, Advocates Say

Rev. Robert W. Lee, IV, left, the fourth great nephew of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, speaks to protesters at the foot of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Lee supports the removal of the statue, which Gov. Ralph Northam said will be removed “as soon as possible” from Monument Avenue. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By Elle Meyers
June 5, 2020

The murder of George Floyd and ongoing unrest across the country has placed renewed interest on the progress local officials have made to address criminal justice reform, or rather the lack thereof. 

When Democrats took full control of the state legislature in Virginia, many ran for their seats on the promise of criminal justice reform. In January, Gov. Ralph Northam rolled out a list of criminal justice reforms that he wanted to see passed in the commonwealth, including decriminalizing marijuana possession, raising the threshold for felony larceny and changing how the state uses parole. 

By the end of the General Assembly session, Northam had signed multiple criminal justice reform bills set to take effect this summer. (See our list below.) But advocates say the bills passed did not do enough and the General Assembly missed an opportunity to go big and change large swaths of the system. 

For example, instead of legalizing marijuana, legislators passed a bill that would decriminalize it, and imposes a fine for those caught using it.  Other bills were also passed over. Legislation that would allow juries to have more flexibility in sentencing, vacate convictions on the grounds of changed scientific evidence and giving amnesty from prosecution to people who report drug overdoses all never made it to Northam’s desk. Another bill to reinstate parole for prisoners, which was abolished in 1995, was deferred for a year of study.

Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, who serves as the executive director of ACLU of Virginia, said they had high hopes for marijuana reform.

“We did not get that,” she said in an interview with Dogwood. Guthrie Gastanaga said decriminalization helps, but residents will still have to pay a penalty, and will have to disclose it on job applications. 

“It also didn’t address the disparate policing problems when it comes to marijuana, because people can still be stopped simply for the smell of it,” she said. “So, while there was a bill that passed and a lot of people hailed it as a huge step forward, we weren’t all that enthusiastic about it.”

The ACLU of Virginia would have also liked to see other reforms on things like the use of solitary confinement, pre-trial reforms, and change bail for certain offenses but those improvements didn’t get passed.

Localities in Virginia have been trying their own efforts to increase police accountability. The city of Charlottesville created a civilian oversight panel to increase public trust of the police department, following the deadly Unite the Right rally in the city in 2017. 

But the oversight committee only had one applicant with policing experience and no applicants from the general public. Of the eight positions, seven were appointed by local officials. And while the board was started in 2017, its first meeting wasn’t scheduled until March of this year, which was then cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Charlottesville Councilor Lloyd Snook said this week that the board could hold virtual meetings, but it was unclear whether any were actually scheduled. 

Guthrie Gastanaga said high up on the list of priorities for ACLU of Virginia is police accountability, which has become especially important given the current popular uprisings against police violence. 

“The number one thing that could be done to change the current dynamic of policing is to pass legislation that allows an officer to lose their state license to police if they’re convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors,” she said. “It shouldn’t take a criminal conviction to take away a policing license.”

In Virginia, Guthrie Gastanaga said a police officer could be fired in one locality for a use of force violation and then move to a neighboring county and get hired at a police department without much trouble.

“No other profession that I know of would allow someone to do that,” Guthrie Gastanaga said. “Police in Virginia, I think, have a feeling of immunity. They feel invulnerable and that’s just wrong. We need to fix that in our legislature.” 

Although there are still many proposals out there to improve Virginia’s criminal justice system, here’s a look at what passed this year:

House Bill 972 decriminalizes the possession of marijuana and creates a $25 civil penalty. It also removes the current criminal classification as a misdemeanor. 

House Bill 277 and Senate Bill 736 were signed and will allow incarcerated individuals to earn credits towards paying off their fines. According to the Jurist, a lot of the incarcerated population find themselves in prison simply because they were unable to pay fines. 

House Bill 1196 and Senate Bill 1 will stop the practice of suspending licenses for people who cannot afford to pay their court fines. Before these rules were overturned Virginia saw a cycle of people going in and out of prison because they could not drive to work because of a suspended license and thus could not pay their fines. 

House Bill 909 and Senate Bill 513 remove license suspensions for other reasons that are deemed unnecessary. 

House Bill 477 and Senate Bill 546 will raise the age that a juvenile can be charged as an adult without court approval from 14 to 16. 

House Bill 33 and Senate Bill 793 will make individuals sentenced between 1995 and 2000 eligible for parole. In 1995 Virginia abolished parole but juries were not informed of the change until 2000. This bill would allow cases to be reassessed for people who were sentenced by uninformed juries.

Finally House Bill 995 and Senate Bill 788 change the grand larceny threshold from $500 to $1,000.  

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