Democrats Stack the Deck

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Virginia State Crime Commission is a legislative body established in 1966 and set out in the Code of Virginia (Sec. 30-156 et al.). Its purpose is “to study, report and make recommendations on all areas of public safety and protection.” Following is a sampling of its recent topics of study:

  • Sex trafficking
  • Pre-trial programs
  • Fingerprinting of defendants
  • Decriminalization of simple marijuana possession
  • Asset forfeiture

Virginia law establishes the composition of the Crime Commission as follows:

  • Six members of the House of Delegates to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Delegates in accordance with the principles of proportional representation contained in the Rules of the House of Delegates
  • Three members of the Senate to be appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules
  • Three nonlegislative citizen members to be appointed by the Governor
  • The Attorney General or his designee

In recent years, there have been four Republican delegates and two Democrats.  The Senate representatives included two Republicans and one Democrat.

For 2020, the composition was set to change due to the Democrats achieving a majority in both houses. For the House Democrats, Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn added Joseph Lindsey of Norfolk and Mike Mullin of James City County and reappointed Charniele Herring, the new House Majority Leader and Paul Krizek of Fairfax.

In the recent past, the Republican members had been Les Adams of Pittsylvania County, Chris Collins of Winchester, Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County and the Republican floor leader, and Robert Bell of Albemarle County. Under the required proportional arrangement, two of them had to go. Filler-Corn kicked off Gilbert and Bell and reappointed Adams and Collins, the Republicans with the least experience on the Commission. (Collins resigned from the General Assembly in late June to assume a judgeship to which he had been appointed and that seat on the Crime Commission is now vacant.)

I can understand getting rid of Gilbert. He is the Republican attack dog. Even when his party was in the majority, some of his floor speeches criticizing Democrats were pretty nasty. To his credit, however, legislative staff members tell me that he is pleasant and easy to work with. I never had occasion to work with him in a small setting, but I was impressed with the manner in which he chaired the House Subcommittee on Criminal Law. He was polite to other delegates and the public who were presenting bills; he explained the workings of the committee to the audience; and he examined each bill carefully for any possible unintended consequences, even if he was sympathetic to a bill’s overall intent.

It is unfortunate that Filler-Corn did not reappoint Rob Bell to the Commission. He is undoubtedly very conservative on criminal justice issues. During his first few years in the legislature, I became convinced that he had set a personal goal of closing every loophole in the criminal statutes that he had encountered during his years as an assistant prosecutor. But he is not one to make partisan attacks on the House floor. His demeanor is serious, somewhat professorial. In small meetings I attended in which he was involved, I found him to be pleasant, smart, and open to new ideas. I was also impressed with him as a member of the House Courts of Justice Committee and as chair of the subcommittee on criminal law. He insisted on reading every bill carefully and dissecting it, asking lots of questions. To top it off, he is known for asking for as much data as he can get on topics before him.

Although I usually ended up on the opposite side of bills from Bell, I found that his insights and comments made me examine my positions more closely. It would seem that Filler-Corn did not want him on the Crime Commission, asking questions that would make the Democratic members uncomfortable.

Although the Senate was not constrained by law, as was the House, to divide its Crime Commissioners according to party representation, it had done so since at least 1992. That was not to be the case this year. The Crime Commission was one of the advisory bodies for which the Senate Democrats abandoned bi-partisanship and appointed all Democrats.

The appointments made by the Governor will also change the orientation of the Commission. He replaced the sheriff of Lunenburg County, in rural Southside Virginia, with the police chief of Norfolk. Another gubernatorial appointment was Lori Haas, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

The Crime Commission has a professional staff of eight that is well respected around Capitol Square. The staff includes two staff attorneys and one member with a PhD. So far, the Democrats have not replaced the executive director who served when Republicans were in the majority.

Although there are multiple proposals on criminal justice reform swirling around (see my summary here), the Crime Commission is not likely to be involved in them this year. In anticipation of the special session scheduled to begin August 18, the Speaker assigned two standing House committees, Courts of Justice and Public Safety, to jointly hold public hearings and discussions on these proposals. The first hearing was yesterday, with the remaining two scheduled for August 29 and August 3. Moreover, the co-chairs of the joint committee, Charniele Herring (Alexandria) and Patrick Hope (Fairfax) made it clear in a Monday op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the time for study is past. They called for “swift, immediate action, especially when we consider the years of efforts by Democratic legislators to pass police reform measures.”

The Crime Commission has met once. It was a short telephone conference meeting in which the members introduced themselves and elected Herring as chair (no surprise). Before adjourning, Herring announced that the executive committee (presumably herself and Sen. John Edwards, the vice-chair) would meet with staff to identify the studies the Commission would undertake for the year.

In the past, recommendations of the Crime Commission carried a great deal of weight and enjoyed bipartisan support because they had been subjected to intense scrutiny and debate by members of varying philosophies. That may not be the case going forward.