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House advances Northam’s criminal justice reform bills: ‘We have to correct a wrong’

Posted: 9:26 PM, Jan 24, 2020
Updated: 2020-01-25 14:02:11-05
House advances Northam’s criminal justice reform bills: ‘We have to correct a wrong’

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia state lawmakers in the House advanced bills on Friday that Gov. Ralph Northam announced his support for as part of his criminal justice reform legislative package, including one that would include parole consideration to some inmates.

The full House voted 52-to-45 in favor of passing HB33, which would give some Virginia inmates that opportunity to apply for parole.

Parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995, but juries were not told of this change when deliberating sentences until 2000 after the court case Fishback v. Commonwealth.

“That means it's possible that juries were imposing harsh sentences during those five years under the incorrect belief that the individuals would be eligible for parole and would serve only part of their sentence. Offering those people a pathway to parole will make our system more equitable,” said Gov. Northam when announcing his support for the bill earlier this month.

Republican Del. Robert Bell (R-58th) spoke out against the bill on House floor prior the vote and said the crimes that the eligible inmates had committed included rape and murder.

“House Bill 33 will force victims of violent crimes and their families to relive the worst day of their lives over and over again,” said Bell (R-Albemarle). “And when parole is granted, it will result in violent criminals being released into our communities.”

“We just think that is not the direction we need to go in, that Virginia has the fourth lowest violent crime rate, the second lowest crime rate in the country, the lowest criminal recidivism rate,” said House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-15th). “To begin to go in this direction does not make Virginians safer.”

During the floor debate prior to the vote, House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring (D-46th) said the bill was about correcting an error the courts had made and was about the integrity of the judicial system.

“The cases that were mentioned, it is horrific, it is terrifying, and my sympathy goes to the victims and the families, but we have to correct a wrong here and our judicial system failed,” said Herring.

When the bill was introduced, Northam’s administration estimated there were 311 inmates who would qualify under this bill. However, an amendment was added to exclude those who had committed sex crimes against minors. During his floor speech, Del. Bell said 280 violent and six non-violent offenders would be eligible.

“We’re not suggesting anyone be released. Merely allow the parole board to review them,” Virginia Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran told CBS 6 prior to the floor vote. “Whether or not they’re good individuals, whether they continue to pose any safety risks to release. So, this is just discretion with the parole board for them to be considered for parole.”

After the full House adjourned for the day, the House Courts of Justice - Criminal Subcommittee passed HB 995, which would raise the amount required to be stolen to be charged with Grand Larceny from $500 to $1000.

When announcing his support for the measure earlier this month, Northam said felony convictions carried a lifetime of barriers to education, housing, and jobs and did not want one mistake to follow someone for the rest of their life. He noted that most cellphones cost more than the current $500 threshold.

"Stealing a cellphone shouldn’t create lifelong barriers to jobs or education,” added Northam.

Several representatives for retail organizations spoke in opposition to the bill, telling lawmakers they expected theft in their member stores to increase.

Also, in the vein of criminal justice reform, at least two Senate resolutions have been filed to direct the Virginia State Crime Commission to study the effectiveness of current laws.

One, SJ 34, introduced by Del. Scott Surovell (D-36th), would direct the VSCC to study the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentence laws, of which there are over 200 in Virginia.

“A lot of us feel like the public policy of taking away judicial discretion and jury discretion and mandating certain sentences is not really effective. It tends to over punish people and tends to also cause people to plead guilty to things they’re not guilty of. Also, results in fewer trails and it really creates an imbalance in our justice system that a lot of us feel is inappropriate,” said Surovell. “I thought it was important that we study all the mandatory minimums that are on the books, figure out if there are any that are working, any that aren’t working and maybe come back next year and get rid of a bunch of them.”

The resolution was heard by the Senate Rules Committee on Friday morning and was passed by indefinitely, but voted to send a letter to the VSCC asking it considers looking at the issue (versus directing it to).

Another resolution, SJ 39, introduced by Sen. John Edwards (D-21st) would task the VSCC to study the effect of abolishing jury sentencing on the justice system. The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee, but has not been voted on yet.

The resolution states Virginia is only “one of six states that allows jury sentencing or noncapital offenses” and adds that “jury members often lack knowledge and understanding of the average sentence imposed for a specific crime and therefore may be more unpredictable in their recommended sentence.”

Sec. Moran spoke in favor of the idea to CBS 6.

“Juries just don’t have the amount of information necessary to make a good judgment in terms of sentencing someone in a criminal case...I think it’s appropriate for study to see whether or not is an effective method by which we mete out justice in Virginia,” said Moran and pointed to the Fishback v. Commonwealth case. “You wouldn’t have the Fishback situation if you didn’t have jury sentencing.”