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Legislators Planning Criminal Justice Reform Efforts

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During his State of the Commonwealth address, Gov. Ralph Northam laid out a focus on criminal justice reforms. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

Virginia Democrats and some Republicans have a range of criminal justice-related issues they plan to tackle during the upcoming legislative session. Most of the proposals are holdovers from 2020 when disagreements between the House and Senate stalled action on key reforms. This year they’ll consider abolishing the death penalty, restoring voting rights for felons, and the automatic expungement of criminal records among other priorities. 

Gov. Ralph Northam announced this week that he will support a proposal to end capital punishment. 

“If you commit the most heinous crimes, you should spend the rest of your days in prison,” Northam said during his 2021 State of The Commonwealth Address Wednesday evening. “But here are the facts about the death penalty. Virginia has executed more people than any other state. More than 1300 people. And here's another truth, a person is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white than when the victim is black.”

Democratic Del. Lee Carter has already filed a bill in the House. Sen. Scott Surovell, also a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Bill Stanley plan to carry the bill in their chamber.

Both Attorney General Mark Herring and Del. Jay Jones, a Democrat running against Herring who is seeking reelection, support the proposal. 

Northam’s record on the issue is somewhat mixed. As a state Senator in 2009, he voted to expand death penalty elgibility, to include accomplices to a murder.   However, he voted “no” on the issue in the previous year. As governor, he previously stated he did not support expanding the death penalty, but stopped short of condemning it entirely. 

Among Southern States, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, Virginia would be the fourth state to end the death penalty behind Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia. Two men are on death row in Virginia. 

Felon voting rights

There’s a push this year to restore the voting rights of people who were convicted of a felony. Virginia is one of 10 states that automatically and permanently ban felons from voting unless their civil rights have been restored by the governor. Former Virginia Gov.Terry McAuliffe used his executive authority to restore the rights of 173,000 Virginians, which his office says is a national record. McAuliffe, who is running for a second term as governor, said he’s confident that the democratic majority will end the Jim Crow-era policy. 

 “Finally, Virginia will join these 40 other states and treat people with dignity and respect and not disenfranchised folks for the rest of their lives,” McAuliffe told VPM. 

Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring will carry that legislation in the House and Sen. Mamie Locke has introduced a similar bill in the Senate. 

Mandatory minimums, expungement and an end to solitary confinement

Meanwhile, the deadly coronavirus continues to course through Virginia prisons and jails, prompting lawmakers to introduce legislation that would speed up the release process. Del. Kaye Kory is filing a bill that would provide a mechanism to do that. 

“We don’t need just a handful of people released from prison,” said Jenny Glass with the ACLU of Virginia. She was speaking at a press conference this week about COVID-19 in state prisons. “We need a lot of people released. Mass incarceration is killing people.”

The department reports the 48 incarcerated people and 2 staff members have died in state-run correctional facilities as a result of the virus. There have been 7,788 positive cases to date. 

GOP Priorities

As Democrats scramble to enable more offender releases and second chances for people who have been convicted of crimes, Republicans continue to push for more transparency from the Virginia Parole Board, which is in charge of granting the release of prisoners who qualify.  Since parole was abolished about 25 years ago, the remaining offenders who are eligible for discretionary parole are generally convicted of serious offenses. 

“Releasing murderers long before their sentences were complete – including those who had received life sentences – the Parole Board acted without notifying the families of the victims of these horrific crimes,” said Republican Sen. John Cosgrove in a statement following Northam’s State of the Commonwealth. “The Northam Administration concealed – and in some cases continues to conceal – the devastating reports of investigations by the State Inspector General of Parole Board misconduct.

The Virginia Parole Board’s monthly decisions are published on the website. Republican Sen. David Suetterlein introduced a bill to require the votes of individual parole board members be public record. GOP Sen. Mark Obenshain has also filed two bills that would increase transparency and require the board notify victims’ families of releases within seven days. 

The Democratic majority declined to consider these proposals previously when it convened for a special session this summer to pass criminal justice reforms. That session focused on racial disparities in criminal justice, and was convened following nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.