Police Reform and the State Budget During COVID: What You Need to Know About this Special Session
By Arianna Coghill
August 10, 2020

The Virginia General Assembly meets again next week to fix the budget after the coronavirus up-ended state revenues and consider police reform legislation.

Virginia’s most recent General Assembly session will go down in history as one of the most progressive sessions the state’s ever seen, passing landmark bills reforming gun control, marijuana decriminalization and securing voting rights for Virginians. 

But the legislators’ work is far from over. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Virginia General Assembly will be holding a special session to focus the state’s budget on August 18. During the session, the assembly members will also be discussing criminal justice and police reform, as well as other social issues in the commonwealth. 

“I look forward to bringing legislators back in session as we continue to navigate these unprecedented times,” Northam said in a release. “We have a unique opportunity to provide critical support to Virginians, invest strategically in our economic recovery, and make progress on policing and criminal justice reform. Let’s get to work.”

Here are some of the topics and bills that will be discussed in the upcoming session. 

Criminal Justice and Police Reform

Possibly the biggest topic that will be discussed during the session will be criminal justice and police reform across the commonwealth. After the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police, the entire country has taken the opportunity to reexamine police violence. 

And with deaths of Natasha McKenna in Fairfax and Marcus David Peters in Richmond, Virginia has not been an exception to the conversation of police accountability. 

Delegates held three meetings with police reform advocates and law enforcement officials in recent weeks to discuss issues of “no-knock” warrants, police immunity, and current law enforcement training procedures. 

“How else would we hold bad actors, law enforcement agencies and the localities or agencies they work for accountable if we don’t change our immunity laws,” Del. Jeff Bourne said during the final meeting on Thursday. 

Here are some of the police-related bills that could be discussed:

SB 5002: This bill, if passed, would prohibit the use of neck restraints by officers. A “neck restraint” is defined as using any body part or object to attempt to control or disable a person by applying pressure against the neck, with the intent or effect of restricting the person’s movement, breathing, or blood flow. The bill specifies that officer who violate this rule could face possible dismissal, demotion, suspension or transfer. 

SB 5003: This bill would establish the Commission on Civil Rights and Policing for the purpose of reviewing civil justice, civil liberties, and policing in the Commonwealth and making policy recommendations to the General Assembly. The bill sunsets on July 1, 2023.

SB 5005: This bill would provide further oversight and evaluation of criminal justice training academies by adding more powers and duties to the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). If passed, this bill would require the department to… 

  • Ensure training academies are meeting established minimum standards or performance objectives
  • Require training academies submit an annual report evaluating the training academy’s performance
  • Require the DCJS to provide an annual evaluation to every training academy

SB 5006: This bill would allow a person to petition to get their police and court records expunged of misdemeanors and certain felonies if they have been granted a simple pardon for the crime. Under current law, records are only expunged if a person received an absolute pardon for a crime they did not commit.

SB 5007: This bill, if passed, would make it so judges determine sentences, unless the defendant has requested that a jury ascertain punishment, or was found guilty of capital murder. The bill would also have the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission prepare a report on the fiscal impact of this measure.

Governor’s Emergency Powers

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Northam had to issue numerous executive orders in order to prevent further spread of the virus. Several legislators raised objections to these orders, demanding the General Assembly get involved. 

“The legislature should be doing more, and it would be empowering to the people,” Sen. Steve Newman (R-Lynchburg) told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Democracy is a good thing. I know that a dictatorship is very efficient, but that’s not the way free people should be governed.”

SB 5001, proposed by Newman, would put a significant limit on the authority of the governor to issue an executive order that would limit, restrict or prohibit  an otherwise lawful action by a private business, nonprofit entity, or individual for a period more than 45 days without the General Assembly’s approval. 

READ MORE: Republicans Try to Limit the Governor’s Emergency Powers

The Northam administration opposes the bill. The special session is supposed to be held at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Stuart C. Siegel Center in order to allow for proper social distancing. 

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