Virginia’s General Assembly is in session! While demanding action from your legislators is fun, it’s not always super easy. Our legislative process is baroque at best, and often designed in such a way that it’s hard to know how to even start demanding the change you want to see. We have 45 days to make it happen.
In order to do that there are three things we need to know: why this matters, what bills are up for vote, and what committees will hand those bills off to the House or to the Senate. Details are below, let me know if anything needs added or adjusted!
Why This Matters
- Rights Restoration and Criminal Justice Reform are issues nationwide, but they especially high stakes in Virginia. VA is a “Tough on Crime” state, with some of the harshest criminal justice laws in the country. Our state has in effect three of the most questionable policies of the tough on crime era–mandatory sentencing minimums, abolition of parole, and felony voter disenfranchisement–operating alongside a policy that, as far as I know, is uniquely punitive: our infamous 21-day rule. For an overview of Virginia’s criminal justice policy, see this briefing sheet from the Justice Policy Initiative.
- Here is an excellent pdf primer of voter disenfranchisement from The Sentencing Project.
- This article in the New York Times summarizes the racist origins of felony voter disenfranchisement. Here is a similar piece from The Atlantic.
Committees and legislators
Right now most of these bills are in committee, so you need to contact committee members, not your local representatives. Here is a meeting schedule for all committees in the 2017 session. These meetings are generally open to the public, and will often have space for public comment. Even if you miss a meeting you can still write all committee members on the legislation they’re hearing. When a bill passes through committee I’ll note below. Then it’s time to contact your legislators!
Bills – Criminal Justice Reform
SUPPORT: The four bills below are the bare minimum reform needed to address oversights in prior reforms. Sadly, these four bills do not make Virginia less tough on crime, but they do the bare minimum to bring existing codes into alignment.
- Bill: HB1480 “Mental health awareness training; law-enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services personnel”
Committee: House Mental Health
What this bill does: “The bill requires law-enforcement officers, emergency medical services personnel, and firefighters other than volunteer firefighters to participate in a mental health awareness program created or certified by DBHDS once every two years.”
- Bill: SB825 “New sentencing hearing; abolition of parole.”
Committee: Senate Courts of Justice
What this bill does: Incredibly, when Virginia abolished parole, it did not require judges to inform juries. From 1995 (abolition) to 2000 (Fishback v. Commonwealth) juries continued to apply sentences with the assumption that people convicted would be offered parole. Sentences during this period far exceed the norm, as juries presumed individuals would serve a fraction of their sentence. This bill allows individuals sentenced during this period to seek resentencing. If you’re thinking “but that’s 17 to 22 years ago, have these individuals been over-serving sentences this whole time?” the answer is yes. They have.
- Bill: SB816 “Grand Larceny Threshold”
Committee: **OUT OF COMMITTEE! Contact your legislator to support this bill.
What this bill does: Increases the grand larceny threshold from 200$ to 1000$. See ACLU commentary on this bill here.
Bills – Rights Restoration
SUPPORT: These bills will increase easy voting access for disenfranchised citizens.
- Bill: HJ540 “Constitutional amendment; qualifications to vote”
Committee: House Privileges and Elections, Subcommittee: Constitutional
What this bill does: “Removes the disqualification from voting of persons convicted of felonies.” While there are many bills up this year, this is the big bill. If this language is removed from Virginia’s constitution, Virginia could no longer disenfranchise individuals from voting based on criminal background.
OPPOSE: These bills make voting harder, restoration of rights slower, or more expensive.
- Bill: HB1407 “Voters, qualified; definition of violent felony.”
Committee: Courts of Justice
What this bill does: defines the phrase “violent felony” for the purposes of reduction of restoration of rights.
- Bill: HJ542 “Constitutional amendment; qualification of voters, executive clemency”
Committee: Privileges and Elections
What this bill does: Reinforces the constitutional clause denying voting rights to people with felony convictions, disallowing restoration of rights until all court fines and restitution payments are made in full. This bill is a poll tax.
- Bill: SJ223 “Constitutional amendment; qualification of voters and executive clemency“
Committee: Privileges and Elections sub: constitutional ammendements
What this bill does: eliminates the governor’s right to reinstate voting rights.
- Bill: SB1285 “Restitution; supervised probation”
Committee: Courts of Justice
What this bill does: Expands state supervision of individuals without means to pay restitution, thus increasing opportunities for arrest.