CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - In her second session representing the 57th District, Delegate Sally Hudson will focus on issues brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic and changes to how the commonwealth treats drug possession.
With just seven bills per delegate this session, a key criminal justice change is at the top of Hudson’s list. First, she is sponsoring a bill that would knock the penalty for simple drug possession from felony to misdemeanor.
“Right now, you can spend up to a decade in prison if you have a simple possession charge,” Hudson explained. “So if we cap it at a misdemeanor, it means that the sentence can’t be longer than a year.”
That bill is currently being reworked before being filed. It’s paired with a second bill which Hudson is the chief patron for, H.J. 530, which launches a study to examine full decriminalization of simple possession across the state. The study legislation does not count towards the bill limit.
“The companion study bill then looks further forward about what it might mean to decriminalize other substances, so that rather than spending any time in a carceral facility, you might instead seek treatment or job training,” Hudson said. “We’ve got lots of other programs around our community that are better suited to help support people with substance abuse challenges.”
She also hopes to make paying off court debt easier, aiming to stop the fines, fees, and interest that she says criminalizes poverty. The bill, H.B. 1895, extends a grace period before interest begins to accrue on court costs. It also would allow any defendant to enter a payment agreement for court costs, and removes any fees associated with a person doing so.
“I’ve been working with my colleagues in the House to reform the way that we allow people to pay off those fines and fees, to try and make it more possible for more people to be successful, and to make sure that everyone - no matter their economic means - can get back on their feet,” Hudson explained.
She says issues only made worse by the pandemic can’t be ignored, like problems with Virginia’s unemployment system.
“Unemployment claims were the number one reason that residents called my office last year,” Hudson said. “I’ve put forth a bill with three pretty concrete solutions, about how we can make sure that payments are getting to workers in need.”
Those three solutions can be found in H.B. 2040. First, that bill would put up stricter regulations for employers that are delinquent in responding to the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) regarding claims. Second, the VEC would be required to presume a claimant is entitled to unemployment benefits until an investigation has proven they are not, which would include a hearing with the claimant. Third, claimants would not have to pay back overpaid benefits as long as the overpayment was not the result of fraud.
Plus, with “stay safe, stay home,” a rallying cry during COVID-19, Hudson says eviction laws need another look, too. That’s her aim with H.B. 1900.
“It’s time that we reform our eviction laws to put landlords and tenants back on even footing. The bill that I’m carrying dramatically increases the penalty for an illegal eviction in Virginia,” Hudson explained. “An illegal eviction occurs when a landlord chooses to take matters into their own hands and circumvent the formal court process by locking a tenant out of their dwelling or by turning off their heat or their water, and really not using the courts as they should be.”
Hudson also has two bills relating to electricity production in the Commonwealth. H.B. 1984 would require Dominion Energy to submit itself to rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission every three years, to ensure it is providing equitable rates. H.B 1899 would sunset tax credits for coal producers. They would not be able to earn new credits after tax year 2020, and would be limited in the amount of previously earned credits they could claim moving forward. Hudson says she would like to see the funds generated from that bill to be reinvested in the communities where coal production continues in Southwest Virginia.
Lastly, Hudson also has introduced a bill to end the prohibition of abortion coverage in health insurance plans sold on Virginia’s health benefits exchange. H.B. 1896 would strike down the existing language in the code that prohibits insurance plans on Virginia’s exchange from covering abortions.