Article: VA Gov. Backs Big Changes in State’s Criminal Justice System

Virginia governor Ralph Northam (D) is pushing for major changes in the state’s criminal justice system, including repealing the death penalty – which would make Virginia the first state in the South to take that step – and automatically restoring felons’ right to vote on release.

Delivering his “State of the Commonwealth” address on January 13, Northam also called on the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature to legalize marijuana, as well as abolish capital punishment and automatically restore voting rights for felons upon their release from incarceration. In its 400-year history, Virginia has carried out the most executions of any state. In the past 45 years, it ranks second only to Texas, with Oklahoma registering a close third.

The governor urged legislators to build on the changes made by a marathon multi-month special session last year, which enacted a wide range of criminal justice changes. These included giving expanded investigative and disciplinary powers to civilian review boards, banning no-knock warrants, calling for the first statewide code of conduct for police officers (which will require training on crisis intervention, de-escalation, and racial bias).

Further, the welter of legislation also required the creation of specialized mental-health crisis response teams, and blocked police departments from acquiring military equipment like weaponized drones, tanks and armored vehicles, grenades, and high-caliber weapons (although a police department can ask the state for a waiver to let it obtain equipment it feels it needs).

What Will Be the Big Changes?

The most controversial enactments during last year’s special session, however, dealt with sentencing reductions. Inmates can slice by their sentences by one-third, provided they were not convicted of violent offenses, behave themselves in prison, and take part in education and counseling programs.

This will let inmates cut their sentences, as long as they were not convicted of violent offenses, and they follow prison rules and participate in counseling and education programs. According to estimates by prison officials, that could advance the release dates for over 14,000 prisoners. To win majority support from Democrats, the backers had to add a lengthy list of exceptions to the measure.

Other changes downgraded many lesser offenses, especially those involving motor vehicles. To cut down on pretextual traffic stops, which police are sometimes accused of making to check out a vehicle’s occupants, rather than due to any real investigation, another part of the special session enactments downgraded to secondary offenses violations such items as noisy exhaust systems, over-tinted windows, or smoking in a vehicle where a child is present. (An early version had to be amended after opponents pointed out it would not let police stop a vehicle driving at night without headlights.)

Also disallowed as the basis for a vehicle search: police claims to have detected the smell of marijuana. The governor has proposed allowing adult recreational sales starting in 2023, automatically expunging sentences for most marijuana crimes (provided fines and court costs have been paid), and decriminalizing possessing of small amounts for personal use.

Many of the criminal justice changes enacted last year are set to take effect on March 1, though some will take longer, due to added time needed (such as writing statewide police conduct rules, or revamping state computers to calculate prison good-time sentence reductions.)

About the Author

limmerlawScott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. He also represents students nationwide when they are charged with violations of their school’s code of conduct.