Virginia General Assembly Finds Common Ground on Criminal Justice Reform

Waiting for a signature on Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk is a bill that will raise the grand larceny threshold in Virginia for the first time in over 30 years. The new law will put the minimum amount for a grand larceny conviction to $500, a step up from the current $200.

“Taxpayers are not well-served when a young person who steals $200 sneakers becomes permanently labeled as a convicted felon,” said David Suetterlein, R-Salem, who introduced the bill.

The law was part of a compromise made by Northam and Republican leadership. As part of the agreement, Northam agreed to support Republican efforts to increase collection of restitution on behalf of crime victims.

The restitution bill passed both chambers and will establish a procedure to be used by courts to monitor the payments of restitution by defendants. The new law will allow a defendant who is required to compensate a victim be held in contempt for up to 60 days at a time for failure to pay. The bill’s patron, Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, introduced it as a solution to problems with restitution by giving judges more power.

The American Civil Liberties Union, as well as many Democratic lawmakers, opposed the bill, asserting that it would turn probation officers and judges into debt collectors and would create a form of debtor’s prison.

Other than the grand larceny threshold, criminal justice reform as a whole had been seen as a bipartisan issue this session with many agreements made between the two parties.

Bills such as those that would combat the school to prison pipeline, a system that sends kids from the classroom to the courtroom through multiple school suspensions and harsh discipline. According to the Legal Aid Justice Center, in the 2015-16 school year, Virginia schools issued 17,320 short-term suspensions and at least 93 long-term suspensions to students in pre-Kindergarten through third grade. Students with disabilities were suspended at rates 2.6 times higher than non-disabled students, and African-American students were suspended at a rate 3.8 times higher than Hispanic and white students.

Although many school discipline reform bills didn’t make it through the session, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, successfully passed legislation that would ban suspensions from kindergarten to third grade.

In jail reform, judges will be able to grant weekend jail time or nonconsecutive sentences for more criminal offenses. In addition to misdemeanors and traffic offenses, people charged with non-violent felonies may be given a choice to serve nonconsecutive days.

The governor also has signed a bill that will add required approval by the State Board of Corrections for adult facilities that could be used to hold juveniles who are determined by the court to be a threat to the security or safety of other minors.

But despite many agreements and compromises in criminal justice reform legislation, lawmakers remained unmoved on gun reform, and almost every piece of gun legislation was killed before the sessions end.

Of over 100 pieces of gun-related legislation introduced to the General Assembly this year only the issuance of a special license plate that will read “STOP GUN VIOLENCE” made it through both chambers.

House Democrats pleaded with the General Assembly to revive gun control legislation after the Parkland, Florida shooting that left 17 people dead. Lawmakers asked for a hearing on a bill that would create a procedure by which police officers could petition a judge for a “risk warrant” to remove firearms from a possibly violent person’s possession. However, many lawmakers argued that it was too late to revive any legislation this year.