RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After Democrats took control of Virginia’s state legislature, criminal justice reform advocates saw their best chance in decades for widespread change in a system they say routinely doles out disparate treatment to minorities.
But as the legislative session reached its halfway mark this week, some advocates say they haven’t seen the kind of progress they expected.
“We’re struggling for the most incremental of changes,” said Ashna Khanna, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
“I’m worried for communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and saddened to see that more impactful policies have not been passed.”
The ACLU pushed for legalizing marijuana. That measure failed, but the House and Senate did approve bills decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot.
Some progressive groups have been disappointed that many proposals have been put off until next year or sent to the Virginia State Crime Commission for study, including bills to end solitary confinement, reinstate parole and make it easier to expunge criminal records for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony convictions. Bills to abolish Virginia’s death penalty also went nowhere this year.
Margaret Breslau, co-founder of the Virginia Prison Justice Network, said she was accustomed to seeing prison reform bills summarily dismissed during years of Republican control in the state legislature, so she had big expectations when Democrats took over. Instead, she’s seen small steps, but not the kind of progress she hoped for, she said.
“You don’t just need reform here and there. You need to transform an entire system,” she said.
Others point to progress on reform efforts that failed year after year under the Republican-controlled legislature, but have finally passed under the new Democratic leadership. Both the House and Senate approved bills that would give about 300 inmates a chance at parole.
Parole was abolished in Virginia in 1995, but juries weren’t given that information during the next five years. Critics say that led to overly harsh punishments handed out by jurors who believed defendants could still get parole and might serve only part of their sentences.
In 2000, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that juries must be told that parole had been abolished. The court said Richard David Fishback, who appealed his 18-year prison sentence, could be re-sentenced, but its ruling did not apply retroactively.
Since then, inmate advocates have pushed for legislation to make the so-called “Fishback” defendants eligible for parole. They finally succeeded.
“With the new regime of Democrats, they have moved the ball,” said Lillie Branch-Kennedy, founder of Resource Information Help for the Disadvantaged, which seeks to end mass incarceration and correct sentencing bias. “These people had no way of remedying their situation. Now they do … they have become eligible for parole,” she said.
Del. Michael Mullin, D-Newport News, has been a favorite target of reform activists because he works as a prosecutor and heads a key subcommittee that hears proposals to change the state’s criminal code. Some activists sent a letter to House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn to protest appointing “a current prosecutor without a strong track record on these issues.”
But Mullin and other Democratic leaders say multiple reforms have advanced or passed under the new Democratic leadership in just the first month of the legislative session, including marijuana decriminalization, raising the felony larceny threshold from $500 to $1,000 and ending the suspension of driver’s licenses over court fines and fees.
“To say that we’re not doing enough on criminal justice reform is just ridiculous,” Mullin said. “We have passed some of the most progressive criminal justice reforms in Virginian’s history.”
“We are making our best efforts to do this in a thoughtful and progressive way. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to make massive changes.”
Sen. Joe Morrissey, a Richmond Democrat, has sponsored legislation to change the way defendants are sentenced. Virginia is one of only six states that allow juries to sentence defendants. Morrissey’s bill, which has been approved by the Senate, would give the sentencing role to judges, except in cases where the defendant opts for sentencing by a jury.
“Juries are unpredictable; they aren’t even given sentencing guidelines,” Morrissey said. “You have much more stability with the judge doing the sentencing.”
Morrissey had also hoped to see the state legalize marijuana, but said he understands that change sometimes comes in stages.
“We’ve tapped the brakes when necessary, but we’re getting significant criminal justice reform,” he said.