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Justice reform bills expected; new proposals from AG Herring

05 Dec 2019 3:24 PM | Danielle Payne (Administrator)

[excerpt from Virginia Lawyers Weekly article by Peter Vieth, 12-2-19]

Democrats are eagerly making legislative wish lists as they anticipate their new-found dominance in the halls of state government when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 8.

On Nov. 18, Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced his priorities for “a more just, equal, and fair criminal justice system,” including cannabis reform, cash bail reform and more pathways to record expungement.

Legislators began pre-filing bills the same day, including a measure to allow bad faith liability in UM/UIM cases and another to expand workers’ compensation coverage for occupational diseases.

Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, the new chair of the Senate Courts Committee, said he anticipates criminal justice reform proposals including reinstating parole, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and expanding criminal discovery.

Gun control legislation is likely to become a lightning rod for advocates on both sides.

At press time, Democrats still had not made an announcement on who will chair the House Courts Committee.

Herring proposals

Herring said his criminal justice agenda will help move the state “away from mass incarceration, eliminate racial disparities in outcomes and access to justice and improve public safety while saving taxpayers money.”

In a news release, he said the combination of the new Democratic Assembly majorities and the “growing slate” of reform-minded commonwealth’s attorneys offers a potential “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to create a criminal justice system that is more just, fair and equal.

He pledged to work for decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana and to move toward legal, regulated adult use.

Herring said cash bail, in its current form, can bring “bizarre outcomes where dangerous people with money can go free while nonviolent people sit in jail for days, weeks or months because they can’t afford to pay bail.”

Herring said he expects a version of a “Clean Slate” law to be proposed.

“Virginia is one of the nation’s least forgiving and most restrictive states for individuals who have earned the opportunity to have old convictions and charges expunged from their records,” he said.

An early bill, House Bill 50 from Del. Mark L. Cole, R-Fauquier, would expand expungement opportunity for those granted a simple pardon.

Edwards also said he anticipated an effort to further increase the grand larceny threshold.

Early legislation

Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, proposes to create a public defender office for Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park. His Senate Bill 72 would open the first new PD office in about 10 years. He said after start-up costs, he believes the creation of a PD office for the fast-growing county would be “budget-neutral” with the reduction in court-appointed payments.

Surovell wondered if PD offices might win support in Chesterfield and James City counties.

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