Parole reform, marijuana decriminalization part of governor’s criminal justice reform package

5

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has unveiled his proposed criminal justice reform agenda for the 2020 general assembly session. Legislative initiatives include decriminalization of marijuana, parole reform, raising the felony larceny threshold, raising the age of juvenile transfer to adult court and the permanent elimination of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines, fees, and court costs.

“All Virginians deserve access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” said the governor. “My proposed criminal justice reform legislation and budget initiatives will combat mass incarceration, increase supports for returning citizens and ensure meaningful second chances for those who have paid their debts to society. This is a bold step towards a more just and inclusive commonwealth, and I look forward to working with the General Assembly to pass these measures into law.”

The governor is proposing Virginia decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, creating a $50 civil penalty instead. Studies show marijuana arrests disproportionately impact people of color. Iin Virginia, African Americans are substantially more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than are white residents. The governor’s legislation will also clear the records of individuals who have been previously convicted of simple possession.

Gov. Northam is proposing legislation to raise the felony larceny threshold to $1,000. In 2018, the governor signed bi-partisan legislation raising the felony larceny threshold to $500, the first time it had been raised since 1980. This newly proposed increase will bring Virginia in line with many other states and ensure one mistake does not forever impact a person’s life. Felony convictions carry prison time and create a criminal record that can be a barrier to education, housing, jobs and more.

Last year, the governor and the general assembly eliminated the practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license for unpaid fines and fees. Since that time, more than 50,000 Virginians have had their licenses reinstated. Gov. Northam’s proposed legislation would make this change permanent.

The governor is also proposing parole reform by expanding eligibility for parole consideration to individuals based on their age and certain medical conditions. In addition, the governor’s legislative package would expand parole consideration to individuals affected by the Fishback v. Commonwealth case.

Finally, Gov. Northam’s two-year budget makes significant investments in criminal justice reform. The proposed budget includes $4.6 million for pre-trial and probation services, funding for a new public defender’s office in Prince William County and additional public defender positions across the commonwealth to reduce the caseload. The budget also includes $2 million for pre-release and post-incarceration services.