In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Marcus-David Peters, Natasha McKenna, Kionte Spencer, and countless Black and Brown Americans have thrust into the spotlight the grave injustices and inequities communities of color face. Virginia lawmakers held a special legislative session to address these issues, and while they made some progress, the reforms passed fell short of the transformational change that Virginians deserve. The 2021 General Assembly is underway, and we are pursuing three priority issues:
- Ensuring that any legislation that legalizes marijuana commits to address the harms to Black and Brown communities resulting from years of disparate law enforcement as a consequence of the War on Drugs.
- Making police as accountable for harming people as any other individual, by ensuring that people have the right to sue police who have seriously harmed them or killed a family member.
- Urging the legislature to take the first step toward putting an amendment on the ballot to ensure all Virginians 18 and older can never lose the right to vote.
1. Legalizing marijuana for racial justice
Marijuana laws are enforced more harshly on Black people and communities of color. Although the General Assembly said they “decriminalized” marijuana in the 2020 General Assembly session, possession is still illegal, only the penalty has changed. Black people are still subjected disproportionately to police stops, are more often charged and face harsher sentences.
Working with organizations that also advocate for equitable marijuana reform, we are seeking to legalize marijuana at the 2021 General Assembly session with a racial justice focus. We call on Virginia lawmakers to repeal the prohibition on possession of marijuana right away until a legal system is set up, repair the harm of the War on Drugs on Black and Brown communities, and create opportunities for impacted people to thrive in the new legal market.
2. Holding police accountable for their misconduct
Federal courts have given police a free pass called "qualified immunity" that keeps them from being held accountable under federal civil rights laws for the injuries they cause. We can't change that – only Congress can – but we can ask and must expect our Virginia legislature to pass a law ensuring that police and their employers aren't immune from being held accountable in court to pay Virginians damages when on-the-job misconduct of police results in death or serious injury.
We must pass a law that gives any Virginian harmed by police the unqualified right to bring an action in a state court before a state judge to hold the police officer and and their employer accountable for harm caused by their misconduct.
3. Guaranteeing the right to vote
Virginia is one of only three states that permanently punishes people convicted of a felony by taking away their right to vote unless the governor individually gives it back – an often long and arduous process. This archaic rule disenfranchises more than 350,000 Virginians who can’t vote but who pay taxes every year, disproportionately leaving Black people out of the democratic process. While one in 20 non-Black Virginians are disenfranchised, one in seven Black Virginians are – largely because Black people are over-policed, subjected to harsher sentences and felonized at a higher rate.
The number of disenfranchised has increased year over year during the last four administrations, and individual restoration by governors is not enough. To ensure that every Virginia citizen 18 and over has the right to vote – permanently – we urge the Virginia General Assembly to take the first step to pass a constitutional amendment that guarantees that voting is a right that can never be taken away.
Please join us in supporting Senator Locke's SJ 272 to guarantee a right to vote that can never be taken away.