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Virginia Democrats vow sweeping changes in criminal justice

Virginia’s 2020 General Assembly session starts this week
Posted at 11:10 AM, Jul 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-22 18:42:19-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Democrats say they’re looking to make transformational change to the state’s criminal justice system — just a few months after taking a far less ambitious approach.

The killing of George Floyd and widespread protests over police violence have prompted lawmakers and their allies to promise sweeping changes to a criminal justice system many advocates have long said doles out disparate treatment to minorities.

“I think we’re all tired of the incremental change that has failed us and failed our community members for so long,” Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales said on a conference call recently organized by Senate Democrats. “We want to do as much as possible as quickly as possible.”

It’s a far cry from earlier this year, when criminal justice reform supporters were disappointed when many of their proposals were put off for a year or sent to a commission for study.

Criminal justice reform supporters said lawmakers were too timid, passing some minor reforms but punting on major issues.

But after Floyd’s killing sparked nationwide protests — including in Virginia where several Confederate monuments have been taken down — lawmakers pledged to make criminal justice a key part of a special session scheduled in August.

Lawmakers recently began to hold hearings on criminal justice proposals that have been suggested by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the Democratic Senate Caucus and a group of liberal-leaning county prosecutors.

Those proposals include banning choke holds, giving prosecutors unrestricted access to all reports and disciplinary records of police officers and downgrading the charge of assault on a police officer from a felony to a misdemeanor in cases where the officer is not injured.