Criminal Justice Reform Update

Anti-Communist novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:

The Law lurches from side to side: one year criminality falls sharply! — arrest fewer, put fewer on trial, and let the convicted out on bail. And then it lurches the other way: there is no end to the scoundrels! No more bail! Make the prisons tougher, the sentences longer, punish the bastards!

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-56

Today we are on the former side, for better or worse. For so long, Virginia lagged woefully behind much of the rest of the country on so many simple criminal justice matters that it is no wonder the new legislature is hell-bent on instilling change.

The Democrats in power in the Virginia General Assembly have been busy this summer and fall trying to keep many of the promises they made on the campaign trail. Here’s a quick run down of where Virginia stands in this special session of criminal justice reform.

Two key bills passed the House and await Senate action: HB 5058, which prevents police for stopping and searching people for ridiculous things such as a dimmed license plate light, and HB 5146, which allows for automatic expungement of criminal records for certain convictions, deferred dispositions, acquittals, and for offenses that have been nolle prossed or otherwise dismissed.

I am a huge fan of HB 5058 because it will reduce potentially volatile and unnecessary interactions between police and citizens. I’ve seen countless cases of police stopping someone for nothing but a dimmed license plate light (even though the plate was clearly visible), and then proceeding to tear the vehicle apart in a search for God knows what. This is a great step toward getting the government out of our daily lives, something I always support.

SB 5007, which allows defendants to choose whether or not to be sentenced by a judge or jury, passed the Senate on September 10 and is advancing in the House. This is a BIG DEAL because historically juries have tended to impose much harsher sentences than judges (this was by design and deterred people from having jury trials). Juries have been limited to imposing a sentence from punishment ranges intentionally higher than sentencing guidelines (what a judge goes by).

SB 5032, which would have eliminated the mandatory minimum for assault on a law enforcement officer, died in the House. In Virginia, assault and battery on anyone else (including a spouse or child) is a misdemeanor eligible for dismissal. But if one assaults a police officer, it is a felony with a 6-month mandatory jail sentence.

So a husband can punch his wife’s lights out and get a slap on the wrist. But if that same person flails and elbows the cop’s bulletproof vest during the arrest, he’s a felon and will do jail time. This makes no sense and needs to change one way or another.

More to come.

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