Criminal Justice Reformers Gearing Up in Virginia

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Advocates say 2020 holds the most promise in a generation to bring criminal justice reform to Virginia, the Washington Post reports. Bills proposed by legislators would reinstate parole and create a new public defender’s office. Some newly elected prosecutors plan to drop charging for marijuana possession. The attorney general has unveiled a plan to make the justice system more equitable. A Democratic majority will take control of the General Assembly for the first time since the 1990s and liberal prosecutors have been elected in some large jurisdictions. State Sen. Scott Surovell said criminal justice reform is a top priority for liberal legislators and Gov. Ralph Northam.

“I think we are going to take a hard look at making big changes over the next two years,” Surovell said. “The last time Democrats had control of both chambers, tough on crime was en vogue and [President Bill] Clinton was handing out mandatory minimums like Chiclets … having the highest prison population in the world is expensive and ineffective.” Legislators expect to tackle proposals on marijuana decriminalization, bail rules and the reinstatement of parole, which was abolished on new convictions in 1994. Some Republican lawmakers and law enforcement officials are skeptical. They argue that some ideas being floated could increase crime and work against victims. State Sen. Mark Obenshain, who chairs the Courts of Justice Committee under the current Republican majority, said the legislature has pursued a bipartisan, data-driven approach to criminal justice that has helped make Virginia one of the safest states. “Some proposals would return us to the policies of the ’70s and ’80s in which Virginia had one of the most liberal parole policies in the country, one in which first-degree murderers were released from prison in less than 10 years,” he said.

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