Virginia’s Special Legislative Session Must Address Real Justice Reform

by Daniel A. Rosen |

On August 18, Virginia’s State Assembly will hold a special legislative session that’s likely to be historic. Originally scheduled to take up budget issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, it now will focus on a range of other public safety issues, given the recent social unrest following George Floyd’s murder.

A great deal of momentum has been generated in recent months to address urgent policing and criminal justice challenges facing Virginians, with support from the Legislative Black Caucus, progressive Commonwealth Attorneys, and Democratic lawmakers. Three preparatory sessions prior to August 18th are giving stakeholders a chance to influence the debate.

During the regular 2020 legislative session, lawmakers made modest progress on justice goals, while several more ambitious bills were deferred to 2021 or defeated outright. Governor Northam’s proposals to decriminalize marijuana, raise the grand larceny threshold to $1000, and stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees passed and were a good start. They will make a real difference in people’s lives.

But several bills that failed to gain traction earlier this year need to be revisited. Chief among them is the reinstatement of parole and opportunity for inmates to earn increased good time sentence credits. Virginia’s state prisons are choked with offenders serving absurdly long sentences, with no opportunity to reduce their time through good behavior or through educational programs or service. And early parole for elderly inmates who’ve served decades behind bars is an easy way to reduce the taxpayers’ burden without sacrificing safety. Parole ought to be back on the table for all offenders that earn it; abolishing it during the tough-on-crime 1990’s hasn’t had any demonstrable effect on public safety.

An effort at sentencing reform also died in 2020 and that needs revisiting. In the midst of a budget crisis, sentencing reform is one of the most urgent requirements for the special session to examine. Lengthy sentences for drug offenses and related crimes, property offenses, and even violent crimes may be politically expedient, but there’s no evidence they make the public safer or reduce recidivism. And they are costing taxpayers millions a year, unnecessarily. Mandatory minimums are also contributing to the problem and should simply be abolished as a failed experiment.

The Democratic-led Assembly can take advantage of the current momentum and consensus around justice reform to go even further. As the Legislative Black Caucus suggests, cash bail reform is critical; far too many low-income and minority arrestees are clogging Virginia’s jails at taxpayer expense. Marijuana should simply be legalized, and more drug offenders should be diverted to treatment programs instead of prison. Making addiction a crime is an expensive way to perpetuate the problem.

Felony records should be expunged more easily, so that returned citizens can return to productive lives. And finally, probationers and parolees who commit technical violations of their supervision conditions – missing meetings with their parole officer or failing a drug screening, for instance – should not be filling state prisons. These low-level violations can be corrected through home confinement or community service, without taxpayers spending on average $30,000 a year to imprison them.

Policing reforms will also be taken up in the special session, and many are critical to a more equitable justice system. Jails are filled with inmates accused of bogus “assaults” on an officer and other stacked charges meant to elicit quick plea deals. Problematic officers must also be subject to more effective oversight and discipline, to include professional licensure requirements.

The special session on August 18 will not solve Virginia’s long history of racial inequality or fix all of the Commonwealth’s shortcomings in policing and justice. But it can certainly go further than the regular 2020 Assembly session did in meeting those goals.

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