Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill Thursday that aims to reduce the number of people behind bars for probation violations.
“Too many people are in prison not because of the original crime they committed, but because once they were out on probation, they did something that caused the court to revoke their probation and send them back to prison,” Northam said at the signing ceremony in Richmond.
Until now, Virginia was one of seven states that didn’t limit probation sentences, which resulted in a disproportionate number of people of color being sent back to prison after serving their original sentences.
The bill, HB 2038, authored by Del. Don Scott, limits adult probation sentences to a maximum of one year for a misdemeanor, and five years for a felony.
“If someone commits another crime while on probation, or absconds, that’s one thing,” said Northam. However, often people are returned to incarceration for technical violations, such as missing a meeting with a probation officer or failing to report a job change.
“That’s what lands you back in prison, and that’s wrong,” said Northam.
It’s also expensive for Virginian taxpayers, Northam said: Keeping someone in prison costs almost $34,000 a year, he said, while supervising them on probation costs just over $1,300.
In addition to limiting the length of probation sentences, the new law will make it more difficult to send people back to prison for technical violations.
“It says courts cannot send a person back to prison for a first technical violation, nor for a second under some circumstances,” Northam said.
Northam said the new law will shift the focus of Virginia’s current probation laws, which he said focused “too much on punishment, and too little on grace for people trying to do the right thing. … It makes it harder for people who are trying to rebuild their lives and take advantage of the second chance they have, to make better choices,” said Northam.
The probation change will be the latest major reform by Virginia lawmakers and Northam, who have eliminated the death penalty and banned the “gay panic” defense. On July 1, marijuana will be legal in the commonwealth.