VA Democrats Advance Criminal Justice Reform Bills, But Fall Short On Some Measures Democrats abolished the death penalty and expanded appeal rights, but couldn't agree on bills to do away with mandatory minimum sentences.
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VA Democrats Advance Criminal Justice Reform Bills, But Fall Short On Some Measures

Ever since Democrats took control of Richmond, they've pushed forward on measures that otherwise wouldn't have move fast — or at all — when Republicans were in charge. Victoria Chamberlin/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Victoria Chamberlin/WAMU/DCist

After last year's widespread racial justice protests, Virginia Democrats made criminal justice reform a top legislative priority. And as the General Assembly wrapped its legislative session last week in Richmond, several items on that agenda became reality, including abolishing the death penalty and giving defendants broader rights to appeal their sentences.

The bills passed by the General Assembly this year follow a number of measures lawmakers approved during a special legislative session last summer. Those measures — which banned the use of chokeholds, imposed new restrictions on no-knock warrants, and gave more power to judges instead of juries to impose sentencesare now law.

In a statement, Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke said that the legislation passed this year boils down to one word: empathy. "We are committed to making sure no Virginian gets left behind; justice is not for just us," she said.

In a dramatic about-face from the commonwealth's history, Virginia will become the 23rd state — and first in the south — to abolish the death penalty when Gov. Ralph Northam signs the legislation into law. The measure passed last month with the support of only three Republicans.

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Virginia has executed 113 people since 1976, second only to Texas in that time. (Virginia had the death penalty for longer than any other state, though, and has executed more people over its history.) Bradley Haywood, the chief public defender for Arlington County and executive director for Justice Forward Virginia, said the legislation brings Virginia into the present — but that it was also a surprise.

"To go from being number one with the least humane practice in our justice system to repealing it... when this wasn't on anyone's radar, and to see so many people rally behind it for the right reasons. That was amazing," Haywood told DCist/WAMU.

In another first for the state, Virginia will join the rest of the country in granting people the automatic right to appeal a trial judge's decision in civil and criminal cases. That will give the losing side an opportunity to present potential errors in the trial process or ask procedural questions to a three-judge panel.

Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke), who chairs the judiciary committee, introduced the legislation to expand the jurisdiction of the Virginia Court of Appeals so it can handle what's expected to be a large increase in the number of appeals. Until now, the defendant in a criminal case had to request that the court consider their appeal, but it only took one judge on the panel to deny the request. As a result, Virginia has one of the lowest decision-reversal rates in the country.

"Either you have to believe that somehow Virginia's trial court judges are just way better and less prone to mistakes than any others, or we've got a court appellate court that just is inclined not to find error," Haywood said.

To accommodate the several hundred additional annual appeals the new law will likely create, six new appellate judges will be appointed to the court. Republicans accused Democrats of trying to pack the court, but Edwards says this brings Virginia in line with every other state — and is one of the most important bills of the decade.

"We're a civilized country, and everybody should have the right in civil and criminal cases to have an automatic review. We're having more appellate judges, and in the case of policy matters, you're going to get more consistency. And I think that's important for justice," Edwards told DCist/WAMU.

Lawmakers also voted to legalize the simple possession of cannabis, but that doesn't mean you can partake in public just yet. The bill lays out steps for a regulatory body to establish a retail market by 2024, a measure that 68% of registered Virginia voters from both sides of the aisle say they support, according to a statewide poll conducted by Christopher Newport University in late January.

In an effort to build a bridge to Virginians hardest hit by previous cannabis prohibition and harsh sentencing that often came with it, the bill requires that records of low-level past cannabis offenses be automatically sealed. It also sets aside some tax revenue for social programs to assist geographic areas that saw high arrest rates. The effort builds on last year's effort to decriminalize marijuana use by reducing the maximum penalty possession of an ounce or less to a civil fine of $25.

Still, not everyone was happy with the legalization measure. The ACLU of Virginia criticized lawmakers for requiring that the issue be revisited next year, when Democrats may not have the same numbers in the General Assembly they have now.

In what some groups see as another shortcoming of the session, lawmakers could not come to a consensus on how far to take the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing. A Senate bill scrapped mandatory sentences for almost all crimes in Virginia, but the House pushed its own legislation that narrowed the focus to drug offenses.

Virginia's State Crime Commission endorsed legislation to eliminate all mandatory minimum sentencing regardless of the crime in an effort to restore sentencing discretion to judges and juries. Such minimum sentences exist for a wide variety of crimes, from distributing steroids to vehicular manslaughter.

"Judges should make a decision on sentencing, both with the guidelines and the nature and history of the defendant and the nature and extent of the crime and decide what to do. The legislature has no business getting involved," Edwards told DCist/WAMU.

Edwards said the measure failed in conference because lawmakers couldn't come to a consensus on whether or not to scrap all minimums or only those for certain crimes. A self-described pragmatist, Edwards hoped they could pass something, but said it became too late in the session to come to a compromise.

"It's bickering back and forth, quite honestly, between people in the House and the Senate, and it just fell apart. And we just didn't have time to go. That's what happened." Edwards said the Democrats will try again in the next session.

The effort had Northam's backing, who in 2019 wrote in an op-ed that a bill stipulating a mandatory minimum life sentence for the murder of police officers would be the last such bill he would sign into law for the remainder of his term.

"I believe we have more than enough mandatory minimum sentences — more than 200 — in Virginia state code," he wrote.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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