Democrats Slow Down on Criminal Justice Reform

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

As Steve Haner remarked in an earlier post, the changes being enacted by Democrats in this year’s session are on many fronts and more extensive than many observers had anticipated. It is hard to keep up.

The same is true in the criminal justice area, but, perhaps to a lesser extent. A lot of changes in the law are being made, but, as for major systemic change, the Democrats have decided to slow down and look at the issues a little bit harder.

Sen. John Edwards, (D-Roanoke, submitted a bill reinstating parole (SB 91) would undoubtedly have been the one to make the most change in the system. Even after it was amended to prevent violent offenders from being eligible for parole, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee decided to carry it over until next year, pending study. (It is not clear who or what will study it. When parole was abolished, there was a major legislative study. Efforts to look at parole since then have also involved some sort of committee or task force.)

Another area in which the leadership has elected to go slow is that of criminal record expungement. According to the Daily Press, nearly 30 bills related to expungement of convictions for marijuana possession, larceny, and prostitution offenses were introduced. The chairmen of the House and Senate Courts of Justice Committees agreed to carry those over and request the Virginia State Crime Commission to study the issue. Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, chairman of the House committee, said, “This is something I believe in. I just want to do this right.”

A subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee has exercised caution in a couple of other areas of the law: bail reform and allowing new trials in instances in which “junk science” was the basis for a conviction. It decided to ask the Crime Commission to study those areas, as well. The Daily Press reported that the subcommittee thinks major bail reform may be too complicated to tackle in a 60-day session. “Democrats and Republicans on this subcommittee are still very cautious about making big changes to the law,” commented chairman Mike Mullin, D-Newport News.

Mullin was not so cautious on Monday afternoon of this week when considering HB 1532, which even the patron said would “revolutionize” Virginia’s criminal justice system. Mullin was obviously a strong advocate for the bill and did everything he could to get it through the subcommittee. After much discussion, the subcommittee voted 5-3 in a straight party-line vote to recommend a substitute bill. One Democrat seemed ambivalent, switching her vote a couple of times, before voting for it, presumably to allow it to get out of the subcommittee and go to the full committee.

HB 1532, introduced by Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, would scrap that “truth-in-sentencing” concept embodied in the requirement in Virginia law that an inmate serve at least 85% of his sentence by substituting a sliding scale system in which an inmate could earn sentence credits, commonly known as “good time” of up to one day for each day incarcerated. As originally introduced, the bill’s provisions would have been applicable to all inmates except those sentenced to life imprisonment. That was too much for even the other Democrats on the subcommittee. Under their pressure, the patron agreed to exempt certain violent offenders and those convicted of sex offenses against children from its provisions.

Somewhat surprisingly, the bill was later carried over for the year by the full committee. The bill’s patron seemed to surprise some of his colleagues by asking that the bill be carried over. In his explanation, he made it clear that he was unhappy with some of the exemptions and wanted time over the interim to work on expanding the bill’s scope. The chairman, Del. Herring, put this one in the group that she would be asking the Crime Commission to study. (The staff of that Commission is going to be in for a busy year.)

From My Soapbox

I understand the arguments of the proponents of HB 1532, among other bills, and I do not doubt the sincerity of their expressions of the need to instill hope in the criminal justice system and their belief in the power of redemption. However, the criminal justice system is incredibly complex and, as is true of all complex systems, changes in one part of the system will have consequences, some unintended, in other parts. Before rushing ahead, it is best to identify, to the extent possible, all the ramifications of major changes and to acknowledge them. It is hoped that, having stepped back for a closer look, Democrats will be able to come up with less drastic changes that will address inequities in the system without creating major damage.

Unrelated note: It is evident that I relied on the reporting by the Daily Press for a portion of this post. For anyone really interested in the activities of the legislature, I recommend that newspaper. In addition to the big stories, it does a great job ferreting out those important stories that do not make big headlines, as well as interesting nuggets.

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5 responses to “Democrats Slow Down on Criminal Justice Reform

  1. We’ll see how the Daily Press maintains that effort following the most recent downsizing (sigh).

  2. so… one wonders if a lot of this legislation was proposed/requested by the Dems in the years the GOP controlled and little if any got done even as compromises and now the dam has burst?

    OR – were all these changes not proposed in prior years and the Dems, once they got control – worked their fannies off to get their ducks in a row on this?

    I’m sure part of this is the current political environment where the ones who control are more interested in saying “my way or the highways” and not too much “can we do a meet-in-the middle compromise”?

    The GOP pretty much followed the “my way or else” template with the guns issue.

    Some of this has come about because the two parties now influence and exert more control over their respective members to the point where some of them fear the party more than elections.

    We’re in a world of hurt these days when compromise is summarily rejected and the “my way” of who holds the majority is the default path.

    And now, the losers say they are going to succeed or go join another state or refuse to implement state law or just “revolution”.

    pretty sad.

  3. Good to see that the Dems are slowing down and actually studying these issues before enacting legislation. Hopefully, they will avoid making really obvious mistakes. As far as the cumulative effect of the entire wave of legislation, I am not optimistic. But I suppose we should be thankful for small favors!

  4. “That was too much for even the other Democrats on the subcommittee. Under their pressure, the patron agreed to exempt certain violent offenders and those convicted of sex offenses against children from its provisions.”

    “The bill’s patron seemed to surprise some of his colleagues by asking that the bill be carried over. In his explanation, he made it clear that he was unhappy with some of the exemptions and wanted time over the interim to work on expanding the bill’s scope.”

    I wonder which of the exemptions the bill’s patron was most unhappy about: the violent offenders or the child rapists?

    Either way, if he represented my district I’d have serious concerns about where his priorities lie.

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