The Moral Arc is Bending Towards Justice: A Look Back at What We Achieved and What is on the Horizon

The Moral Arc is Bending Towards Justice: A Look Back at What We Achieved and What is on the Horizon

By Dominique Martin (he/him), Policy Research Analyst 

Last year, New Virginia Majority released our ten-year vision— a robust policy agenda covering a range of policy issues that centers the needs and struggles of working people, people of color, immigrants, women, and young people to build a real democracy rooted in racial and economic justice. A key tenet of our long-term vision is transforming our criminal justice system. We believe that a fair and just criminal justice system ensures that law enforcement officers are accountable to their communities, there are more community-based alternatives to incarceration, poverty is decriminalized, and returning citizens have a fair shot to succeed.

During the 2020 Regular and Special Sessions of the General Assembly, several pieces of legislation were passed that will help our communities make significant progress and begin to advance a progressive criminal justice agenda. Yet, there is still work to do and we will build on the progress we have made to move Virginia closer to a truly just society for all. Here is an overview of some key bills that passed the General Assembly in 2020 along with our perspective on what lawmakers should prioritize during the 2021 General Assembly Session, which begins on January 13, 2021.

Policy Wins From the 2020 Regular Session

The 2019 elections brought a shift to Virginia’s political landscape. Democratic control of the House of Delegates, Senate, and Governorship opened the path for bold policy ideas to become law in the Commonwealth. Reform efforts helped to reshape the criminal justice system at all levels, from prevention, first contact, and to post release. Some of these bills were:

  • HB277 (Price): Allows individuals to perform community service during imprisonment to earn credit against fines and court costs imposed upon them.
  • HB757 (Aird): Limits employment applications for local and state government positions from including questions about arrests and convictions (ban the box).
  • HB995 (Lindsey): Raises the felony larceny threshold from $500 to $1,000.
  • HB972/SB2 (Herring/Ebbin): Decriminalizes marijuana usage and possession from a maximum fine of $500 and/or a maximum 30-day jail sentence for first offense and Class 1 misdemeanor for subsequent offenses, to no more than a $25 civil penalty for simple possession further reducing contact with the criminal system. 
  • HB1196 (Lopez): Repeals the requirement that the drivers license of a convicted person is  suspended for failure to pay fines and court costs.
  • HB1462 (Scott): Allows a magistrate to grant bail without having to get approval from a Commonwealth Attorney, potentially reducing the amount of people held pretrial. This will help citizens avoid the devastating consequences of being detained while awaiting their day in court, and will lessen the amount of people detained pretrial overall.
  • HB1250 (Torian): Prohibits law enforcement officers from using bias-based profiling, and creates a database to collect information related to the use of profiling during police stops and to catalog complaints about officers’ use of excessive force.

Progress Made During the 2020 Special Session 

This summer a special session was held in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, and the months of protests that followed. The special session resulted in the passage of many important bills that will help protect our communities from police violence and empower us to hold law enforcement officers accountable when they engage in misconduct. These bills include:

  • HB5043/ SB5038 (Bourne/ McPike): Enables the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services (DBHDS) to work together to create a Marcus alert system and submit a plan by 7/1/21 as an attempt to help those experiencing mental health crises by utilizing law enforcement and behavioral health workers for crisis intervention.
  • HB5055/ SB5035 (Herring/ Hashmi): Gives localities the authority to establish an independent Civilian Review Board that has investigatory power, subpoena power, and a say in disciplinary decisions regarding law enforcement officers.
  • SB5014 (Edwards): Requires all new law enforcement officer-hires to complete Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) as part of the minimum training standards and requires currently trained CIT officers to complete advanced training.
  • HB5072/SB5024 (Lopez/ Lucas): Gives the Attorney General authority to initiate investigations into unlawful practices committed by law enforcement agencies.
  • HB5062/SB5033 (Mullin/ Surovell): Allows a prosecutor the authority to dismiss a criminal case.
  • SB5007 (Morrissey): Sentencing reform allowing judges, as opposed to juries, to determine sentences in criminal cases unless otherwise requested. This brings Virginia in line with nearly all other states in the United States and is expected to result in more fair sentencing. 
  • HB5148 (Scott): Earned sentence credits can be earned to reduce the length of sentences, incentivizing incarcerated people to engage in good behavior and community service.

SB5030 (Locke): This is a package of bills rolled into one piece of legislation, Senate Bill 5030 includes several new laws related to criminal justice and policing that were passed separately in the house. These laws have an enactment date of 3/1/21: 

  • HB5029 (McQuinn): Law enforcement duty to intervene and render aid. 
  • HB5069 (Carroll Foy): Prohibits neck restraints and provides for disciplinary action unless the use of a neck restraint is immediately necessary to protect the law enforcement officer or another person. 
  • HB5099 (Aird): Limiting the circumstances under which search warrants (especially no knock warrants and nighttime warrants) can be requested from a judge or magistrate and execution to daytime, unless good cause is shown upon warrant request. 
  • HB5051 (Simon): Requires the adoption of standards of conduct and expanded the criteria for decertifying law enforcement officers who are found guilty of misconduct and mandates reporting to the Criminal Justice Services Board in writing.
  • HB5104 (Price): Mandates law enforcement agencies and jails request the prior employment and disciplinary history of new hires.

Key Opportunities for the 2021 Regular Sessio

The General Assembly took important steps forward in 2020 but there is still work to do. We look forward to working with members of the General Assembly and our partners to expand our bold vision for Virginia by advancing legislative measures in 2021 that:

  • End qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.
  • End the practice of cash bond and other court fees and fines that criminalizes poverty.  
  • Implement an equity-focused legalization of marijuana that addresses the economic and social implications of the criminalization of marijuana in low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Implement restorative justice practices, such as automatic expungement and rights restoration, clemency, sentence reductions, and retroactive sentencing, in alignment with the policy recommendations from Virginia’s Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law. Marijuana convictions that are no longer criminalized should be included in the the list of circumstances that qualify for automatic expungement. These were policy recommendations that were submitted to the Commission by New Virginia Majority.
  • End the death penalty in Virginia.

Click here to read our Ten Year Vision for Democracy, Justice, and Progress.

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