CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. (WVIR) - With just days until the new legislative session, Governor Ralph Northam is pushing for criminal justice reform across the commonwealth. His legislative initiatives include decriminalizing marijuana and raising the felony larceny threshold.
One of Northam’s legislative priorities would also end the practice of suspended driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees. A move the Legal Aid Justice Center here in Charlottesville says is a long time coming.
A New Year means new priorities for Northam. "Justice must be fair and equitable and the punishment should fit the crime."
During a press conference on Friday, Northam laid out his priorities for criminal justice reform, one of which is the decriminalization of marijuana in the commonwealth.
"Instead of getting a criminal record, people will pay a $50 civil fee and we'll clear the records of people with previous convictions."
Also in Northam’s legislative priorities, a push to permanently end the practice of suspending driver's licenses for unpaid court fines and fees.
"This seems like a no brainer for Virginia,” Legal Aid Justice Center Executive Director Angela Ciolfi said.
Ciolfi and her team at the nonprofit provide legal advice for low-income families across central Virginia. "This has been a problem that has plagued low-income communities and families and individuals for years and its something that we have been working to end since around 2014.
Ciolfi says the temporary relief from the last budget cycle was a good start. The Legal Aid Justice Center has heard from dozens of people who have benefited from the ending of suspended licenses because they can't pay court fees.
Ciolfi believes this session could be the best chance to get rid of the practice entirely. "It will really keep more people from falling into poverty and allow other people to move on with their lives, this is a law that has devastated not just individuals but their families and the communities that rely on their networks for transportation and other forms of support."
If he gets his way, Northam would permanently end the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid fees. Those bills will go in front of the house and senate during the legislative session.
The General Assembly convenes in Richmond on Wednesday.
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is promising sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice reforms that include decriminalizing marijuana, softening the penalties for people caught stealing smaller-dollar items, and reducing the number of Virginians whose driver’s licenses are suspended.
Northam, a Democrat, said at a news conference in Richmond Friday that he’s backing an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice reform that he said would make it more “equitable” and “compassionate.”
The 2020 legislative session starts next week. Democrats are set to have complete control of the state house starting next week for the first time in more than two decades.
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01/03/2020 Release from the Office of Governor Ralph Northam:
RICHMOND - Today, Governor Ralph Northam 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 Governor Northam. “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 - in Virginia, African Americans are substantially more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than white residents. The governor’s legislation will also clear the records of individuals who have been previously convicted of simple possession.
Governor Northam is proposing legislation to raise the felony larceny threshold to $1,000. In 2018, the governor signed bipartisan 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, Governor Northam and the General Assembly eliminated the practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees. Since that time, over 50,000 Virginians have had their licenses reinstated. Governor Northam’s proposed legislation would make this change permanent.
Governor Northam 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 impacted by the Fishback v. Commonwealth case.
Finally, Governor 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 caseload. Additionally, the budget includes $2 million for pre-release and post-incarceration services.
“This administration continues to demonstrate its dedication to comprehensive criminal justice reform,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran. “The impact of this legislative package is substantial and transformative. Our parole reform bills will make many more offenders eligible for discretionary parole and the elimination of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fees and fines and non-driving related offenses will affect hundreds of thousands of people.”