Va. Democrats are pushing for criminal justice reform, and Republicans are excited and anxious as session nears
Reinstating parole, marijuana decriminalization and reducing youth incarceration are just a few of the criminal justice issues Democrats are eager to tackle when they take control of the Virginia General Assembly next week. The Democrats’ promise to bring criminal justice reform to Virginia has Republicans both excited and nervous.
“Mandatory minimums and lock them up and three strikes, those days are gone because it’s been shown those measures aren’t effective,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, who has been a persistent advocate for policies that create a fairer and more equitable justice system. “What we need in criminal justice reform is to temper justice with mercy. But I do worry about swinging too far with criminal justice reform.”
The national conversation about mitigating crime has evolved in recent years, toward evidence-based and common-sense approaches to public safety while questioning the effectiveness and humaneness of tough-on-crime policies.
Common ground on issues
Criminal justice reform is one area that is politically bipartisan. On the left, liberals often talk about racial and gender disparities involving who is arrested and sent to prison. On the right, fiscal conservatives point to inefficient taxpayer dollars use in investigating and prosecuting certain crimes, or a simple marijuana possession conviction barring someone from getting a job and opening the door to receiving government assistance.
“It’s important to be smart on crime so that our law enforcement can target the most important things and we can best spend our taxpayer money,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.
This was his motivation behind getting the felony threshold for larceny and other property crimes increased from $200 to $500 in 2018.
It’s also his logic behind a bill he’s reintroducing that would raise from 80 to 85 mph the threshold for reckless driving in areas of Virginia where a 70 mph limit is posted. If a police officer clocks a driver going over 80 mph in Virginia, that person faces a misdemeanor charge that can carry up to a year in jail or a $2,500 fine. Suetterlein said a person will likely hire a lawyer and the charge will be reduced.
“We should be passing laws we expect to be enforced, and having laws like an artificially low felony threshold for larceny or overly strict speed limits that can be argued down by attorneys doesn’t serve the taxpayer or the general public,” Suetterlein said.
However, Democrats and Republicans part company on certain issues including controlling the proliferation of guns and gun violence, but agree there are many others issues with bipartisan support.
Stanley, a lawyer, is sponsoring for the third time a bill to repeal a law that suspends the driver’s licenses of those that don’t promptly pay their court debts. Evidence has shown the current process disproportionately hurts poor and minority drivers.
Republicans in the legislature have been pushing bills for years that would allow people to seek expungement of certain convictions, such as underage alcohol possession and marijuana charges. They’ve filed expungement legislation again for this upcoming session.
“We want to create a balance so when someone enters the criminal system, they aren’t exiled, and when they return to society, they are welcomed back as productive members and not continued to be penalized for their mistakes,” Stanley said. “When someone is caught with a minor pot conviction, that person will interview for a job, undergo a background check, and then be cast aside. Mistakes of youth shouldn’t be paid for in maturity of adulthood.”
Lawmakers have pointed to a handful of tough-on-crime Republican members of the House of Delegates who have been able to halt similar bills from moving forward by bottling them up in committees.
Appetite for change
Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, the incoming House Majority Leader, will chair the House Courts of Justice Committee, and said there is an appetite for change.
“We’re not going to be soft on crime, but we want our judicial system to be more efficient and more fair,” she said last month.
Democrats have filed more than two dozen criminal justice bills so far, including measures abolishing the death penalty and decriminalizing or legalizing simple possession of marijuana. There’s an emphasis on juveniles, with proposals such as exempting students from a disorderly conduct charge if they misbehave at school or on a school bus and creating an avenue for parole for juveniles sentenced to life in prison.
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who will chair the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, filed a bill to bring back parole. The General Assembly abolished parole in 1994, requiring felony offenders to serve at least 85% of their sentences, with the potential to earn good-behavior credits toward an early release date.
Edwards points to several issues with the elimination of parole, such as the high cost to the commonwealth in providing health care for geriatric inmates.
“And there’s a humanity issue,” said Edwards, a former U.S. Attorney. “People deserve a second chance.”
Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who has been the chair of the House Courts of Justice Committee, cited the commonwealth’s low violent crime rate, low recidivism rate and safe schools as indicators that the current parole laws are useful. Violent crime has declined dramatically across the country for nearly three decades, but researchers haven’t been able to agree on why it’s been happening.
“Those policies that would make our schools more dangerous or result in the early release of violent offenders are the ones that are certainly causing the most unease among those of us who have made public safety a priority in the last few years,” Bell said.