The Courts of Justice Committee in the House of Delegates took up several pieces of criminal justice reform legislation on Tuesday that the full Senate has already passed.
Now that both chambers have completed their own docket of bills, they must consider and vote in favor of the same exact piece of legislation before Governor Northam can sign the bill into law. In order for that to happen, the House and Senate bills now have to make it through the opposite chamber. Some bills will pass as is, while other bills will face changes and possibly go into conference in order for legislators to finalize on one bill.
The Committee began Tuesday by killing two Republican bills. One bill that was sponsored by Senator David Suetterlein (R) would have made individual parole board votes FOIA-able, the bill was struck down by the Democratic majority.
Another bill sponsored by Senator Mark Obenshain that would have forced parole boards to release reports each month that detail their actions with incarcerated individuals was killed and referred to the crime commission for more study.
“Once again House Democrats have demonstrated that their top priority in this special session is making life easier for criminals,” said House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert. “If murderers, rapists, and child molesters are to be released from prison, victims of their crimes and members of the public should at least know when it’s happening, and which members of the Parole Board voted for that release.”
The House Committee passed multiple bills from Senator Louise Lucas (D). The first would empower the Attorney General to take civil actions against law enforcement agencies. The second bill from Senator Lucas to pass would downgrade the marijuana to a secondary traffic violation. Speaking in favor of the bill, a representative from ‘Virginians against Drug Violence’ said this bill will lead to fewer encounters with police officers which will “prevent bad things from happening.”
Senator Jennifer Boysko (D) was able to see her earned sentence credit bill pass through the House Committee. This bill would allow incarcerated individuals to earn a reduction in the prison sentence with good behavior.
Senator Scott Surovell (D) saw only one of his two bills pass when the Committee voted in favor of his first piece of legislation that would allow prosecutors to drop charges without needing the consent of the judge. The full House has already passed a nearly identical bill from Delegate Mike Mullin (D) earlier in the session.
The Committee effectively killed another bill from Surovell that would have gotten rid of the mandatory minimum sentence requirement for an assault on a law enforcement officer. “This is the only crime on the books where the same person is the victim, the lead witness, lead investigator, and the charging officer,” said Surovell.
Wayne Huggins from Virginia State Police spoke out against the bill at the meeting. Huggins specifically disagreed with the idea of an officer being injured as the criteria for more severe charges under this legislation. Huggins said he wants the charge for someone swinging and missing to be equivalent to an officer being punched in the face.
Delegates were also struggling to work through some of the language in the bill. Delegate Bourne (D) stated that he is worried that the bill did not adequately address juveniles or autistic individuals in the wording. This lead to Delegate Bourne moving for a motion to kill the bill and refer it to the crime commission for further study.
The motion passed nearly unanimously, with only Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope voting against killing the bill. It is worth noting that Senators recently killed a qualified immunity bill from Delegate Bourne.
The House did not pass a similar version of this bill. “They had concerns about how tight the definitions were on the misdemeanor option,” said Surovell after the vote. “There’s not enough time in special session to figure out the language, and the bill is not a priority without a House corollary bill.”
“Currently, you can get a felony for throwing an onion ring at a police officer,” said the ACLU of Virginia in a statement after the vote. “No one should be felonized for “assault” on police where there is no bodily injury.”
The Committee advanced a bill from Senator Joe Morrissey that would allow for the judge in a trial, instead of the jury, to sentence the defendant. Delegate Mike Mullin (D) spoke out against the bill citing the unknown costs associated.
Mullin called it “a dangerous proposition” to pass the bill without know what it will cost. “Nobody said we are going to need more money for registrars if we let women vote,” said Senator Morrissey in response. “We said it is a violation of the constitution and it has to be fixed.”
Delegate Bourne and Delegate Jennifer Carol-Foy (D) both spoke in strong favor of the bill. “I think this is important enough to move on,” said Bourne. The Committee passed the bill on an 11-9 vote.
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