Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's proposals include a wide array of criminal justice changes, including one to make permanent a policy he imposed last year that ends the suspension of driver's licenses for unpaid fines.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) says removing arrest and jail penalties for possession meant for personal use is his highest priority for criminal justice legislation in the upcoming session of Virginia's General Assembly.
The legislature convenes this month for the first time since Democrats took control of both chambers. Ahead of that meeting, Northam released a host of proposals related to law and the courts. On marijuana, Northam proposed replacing arrests with a $50 civil penalty and said his legislation would also clear records for people who had prior convictions for possession. His other plans include funding new public defender positions, raising the threshold for felony convictions and ending suspensions of driver's licenses for unpaid fines and court costs.
"We are a nation of laws and punishment is appropriate for those who break those laws," Northam said Friday in Richmond. "But it benefits no one for those punishments to be overly harsh. Justice should be tempered with mercy."
The announcement came a day after Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano announced that he directed his office to end a "wasteful, outmoded policy" of prosecuting adults for the personal use of marijuana.
Marijuana legalization activists were buoyed by the announcements.
"The support for decriminalizing simple marijuana possession has been growing within our General Assembly for years now," said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the Virginia branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. "With the new majority and the governor prioritizing this issue I think it is safe to assume that such a bill will succeed this session."
Pedini expects decriminalization to pass this year, but other measures, like legalizing recreational use of marijuana, could take longer.
Vicki Williams, chair of Decriminalize Virginia, said Attorney Descano was limited in his influence on marijuana policy. She noted that another Commonwealth's Attorney, Greg Underwood in Norfolk, also tried to end marijuana prosecution. Local judges disagreed, and he lost a legal battle in the Virginia Supreme Court to force them to abide by his directive.
"[Underwood] stated he was not going to prosecute marijuana cases," Williams said. "The judges weren't in concert with him. There's a problem because there are laws on the books that state that they need to charge and pursue."
Still, she said, Descano's statement was an important addition to public discussion.
Marijuana legalization has inspired early bills ahead of next week's legislative session, including some bipartisan efforts.
Democratic state Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria co-sponsored a bill with Republicans Tommy Norment, who represents Gloucester east of Richmond, and Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico. The bill mirrors Northam's decriminalization proposal by imposing a civil penalty of $50 or less; the current maximum fine is $500 with a possible 30-day jail sentence and a Class 1 misdemeanor. The bill would also allow for the expungement of convictions.
"I'm excited about the support we're seeing for my effort to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia," Sen. Ebbin wrote WAMU. "It's clear that the prohibition on marijuana in this commonwealth and country have failed."
Other bills that would reduce penalties further for possession or distribution of marijuana are largely carried by Democrats.
Northam's proposals include a wide array of criminal justice changes. He proposed to make permanent a policy he imposed last year that ends the suspension of driver's licenses for unpaid fines. He said it led to 50,000 Virginia residents getting their licenses reinstated. He also proposed to raise the threshold for felony larceny charges from $500 to $1000.
Some of his proposals are likely to be unpopular with Republicans; Del. Dave LaRock, who represents parts of Loudoun County, said he opposed decriminalizing marijuana.
Republican House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert of Mount Jackson, Virginia wrote to WAMU, "We have the second-lowest crime rate in the nation and the lowest rate of recidivism. Any significant changes to the way we administer criminal justice should be undertaken carefully with an eye toward unintended consequences. Doubling the amount you can steal from your neighbor without serious consequence is, unfortunately, a prime example of the Democrats' looming agenda on crime and criminals."
Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, praised Northam for his efforts to end driver's license suspensions.
However, she said Northam's marijuana proposals did not go far enough.
"The proposal to change from a criminal penalty to a civil penalty...leaves police in the role of being able to stop people in the streets because they smell marijuana," she said. "Then you've done nothing to address disproportionate arrest," she added, noting that black people are three to four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white people in Virginia.
As an alternative, she said Virginia should fully legalize marijuana possession.
Virginia's legislative session opens Jan. 8 in Richmond.