Va. governor unveils criminal justice reform plans for 2020

Virginia’s governor has announced his New Year’s wish list for criminal justice reform in the commonwealth.

The plan, revealed on Friday by Gov. Ralph Northam, includes decriminalizing marijuana possession, changing how the state approaches parole, and raising the threshold for charging someone with felony larceny.

In a press conference, the Democratic governor said he believes this will be the year many of the proposals introduced in years past actually become law. Northam’s confidence comes as the state’s General Assembly sees its power shift from Republicans to Democrats.

“All Virginians deserve access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” Northam said in a statement.

To begin 2020, Northam will introduce a proposal decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The legislation would make simple possession punishable by a $50 civil penalty. The legislation would also clear criminal records of past simple possession convictions.

In addition, the governor is setting his sights on the felony larceny threshold, calling for it to be raised from $500 to $ 1,000. It’s a move the governor’s office said will put Virginia in line with many other states. Northam said it will result in “one mistake” no longer impacting a person’s record with a felony conviction.

The plan also includes a new look at how parole is granted.

Currently, discretionary parole doesn’t exist in Virginia, but parole can be granted to some prisoners who meet certain criteria. Northam is proposing that an inmate’s age be a consideration for those who are 50 years old and have served 20 years in prison, and for 55-year-olds who have served 15 years.

Another proposal calls for prisoners who are permanently incapacitated or terminally ill — and are deemed to not pose a threat to public safety — to be considered for release as well.

Also: In 1995, Virginia abolished parole, but juries deciding sentences were not instructed about the change until 2000. One proposal will allow people sentenced during that five-year window to be considered for parole.

Northam also announced legislation that would make permanent a change made last budget year that prevents drivers from having their licenses suspended for not paying fines or fees.

Another proposal dealing with the same topic would eliminate the suspension of licenses for nondriving related offenses. This would include failing to pay jail fees and not paying at the gas pump.

Right now, children 14 or older who have had run-ins with the law could potentially be charged as an adult without a judge weighing in. The governor calls for that age limit to be changed to 16- years-old.

Other proposals call for changes in how a person can petition the court to prove their innocence in a case and how people in jail can earn community service hours.

In addition, Northam announced putting money behind criminal justice reform in his next budget, which includes $4.6 million to be used over the next two years to expand pretrial and probation services.

$2 million over the same period would be used to support reintegration of released inmates; $5.6 million would go toward beefing up staff at courthouses; and $2.3 million has been earmarked for the Virginia Parole Board to investigate and develop release plans for prisoners eligible for parole.

The budget also includes funding for 59 new public defenders, as well as $2.7 million to establish a public defender’s office in Prince William County.

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