The Commonwealth of Virginia made historic progress during the 2021 legislative session, becoming the first in the South to legalize marijuana and end the death penalty while continuing work to expand access to the ballot box and protect the LGBTQ+ community.

As Virginia's 2022 legislative session approaches, so does a change in Virginia's leadership. These new government officials will bring with them new ideas, priorities, and viewpoints. We are ready to work with and hold accountable these new leaders to advance our legislative goals and make life better for the people in Virginia. 

Here are the key dates you need to know:

  • Tuesday, February 15 - crossover begins (when the House and the Senate trade bills they passed with each other)
  • Thursday, March 10 - last day to act on remaining bills
  • Saturday, March 12 - session adjourns
  • Monday, April 11 - last day for the Governor to take action on legislation

Our top priorities for the 2022 General Assembly session are:

1. Guarantee the right to vote for Virginians with felony convictions (HJ 9/SJ 1)

People who have served their sentences and paid taxes deserve a chance to choose the people who represent them. It's time for a change and it's time for a second chance. Broadening the electorate to as many people as possible is a huge step toward eliminating the vestiges of Jim Crow that remain in the Virginia constitution. 

Problem: People who have served time for felony convictions are not guaranteed the right to vote under Virginia's constitution, meaning that over 250,000 Virginians are barred from the ballot box as an additional punishment to being incarcerated. Lawmakers in 1902 purposefully and consciously banned anyone convicted of a felony from voting to suppress the Black vote, knowing that Black people were – and would continue to be – disproportionately criminalized. 

Solution: Amend the Constitution to guarantee the right to vote for every Virginian 18 years of age and older who are not currently incarcerated for a felony conviction.  Passing the Right to Vote amendment for the second time places the responsibility for this important decision where it should be – with Virginia’s voters during the 2022 elections. Recent polling conducted by the Beacon Research Group showed that 65% of Virginians believe that once a person has served their time, they should have the right to vote. Our democracy is stronger and our communities are safer when more people are allowed to participate in it.

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2. Give incarcerated people a second chance to return home (HB 906)

People who have used their incarceration to rehabilitate deserve the chance to return home and become full participants in their community. 

Problem: Too many people are locked up for far too long across Virginia. Despite research demonstrating that people "age out" of crime after ten years, over 4,000 people are serving a life sentence in Virginia's prisons - approximately 14% (one in seven) of the state's prison population. The Commonwealth's highly restrictive post-conviction relief systems have left incarcerated people serving extreme sentences with limited to no opportunity to return to their communities any sooner. This exacerbates our mass incarceration crisis, keeps families apart, and doesn't keep anyone safer. Extreme sentencing disproportionately impacts communities of color, as Black people are criminalized more often and receive harsher sentences than white Virginians.

Solution: Pass a "Second Look" law that would allow people with unnecessarily long sentences to request a review of their sentence after serving 10 - 15 years in prison depending on the age at which they were convicted and give judges the power to consider shorter sentences for rehabilitated people. 

Take action

Make sure to follow partners in this space: Sistas in Prison Reform, The Humanization Project, Justice Forward Virginia, Nolef Turns, Legal Aid Justice Center.

3. End all mandatory minimums (SB 104)

Every person deserves to have all aspects of their case considered when navigating the criminal legal system. Someone's circumstances, background, and context should be taken into account when determining a criminal sentence and everyone deserves the right to a fair trial.

Problem: Mandatory minimums prescribe a one-size-fits-all punishment even though circumstances may vary greatly. Largely due to mandatory minimums, people accused of crimes are often coerced by prosecutors into pleading guilty and taking plea agreements for fear of getting harsher sentences if they pursue their cases in court, even if they are innocent. More Black and Brown people receive mandatory minimums than white people - 41% of Black people in Virginia’s prisons are serving mandatory sentences while only 26% of white people are.  

Solution: Pass a bill to eliminate all mandatory minimums in Virginia and review the cases of people serving mandatory minimum sentences for potential resentencing.

Take action 

Make sure to follow our partners in this space: The Humanization ProjectJustice Forward Virginia, FAMM.

Legislation we co-lead with other organizations:

1. Guarantee Counsel at First Appearance (HB 369)

Everyone, regardless of who they are, has the right to a fair trial and deserves access to a lawyer when they are charged with a crime. In a just system, people accused of a crime should know their rights, have legal representation from the get-go, and be treated fairly as they fight their cases in court.  

Problem: While all people who are accused of a crime should have a right to a lawyer from the very beginning; for many, that right is not a reality. It's been proven that people who make a first appearance without legal representation are more likely to be jailed pretrial and risk losing their jobs, homes, and custody of their childrenn; resulting in negative short and long-term outcomes.  

Solution: Pass legislation to guarantee that all people accused of a crime have a lawyer at their first court appearance to preserve the presumption of innocence and ensure that people are not needlessly jailed pretrial.

We are proud to work with the Virginia Pretrial Justice Coalition to address this lapse in our justice system.

2. End Solitary Confinement (SB 108)

People sentenced to a prison term are not sentenced to solitary confinement. The practice of isolating people in a cell the size of a parking spot for over 20 hours a day is barbaric and cruel, and it has no place in Virginia. 

Problem: Solitary confinement is torture and a violation of human rights. Despite VDOC's claims they have ended the practice, we are told every day by incarcerated people that the practice is still widely used in Virginia prisons. Without independent oversight, we have no way to verify VDOC’s claims beyond what they self-report. 

Solution: Pass a bill prohibiting the use of solitary confinement – no matter what name VDOC uses to refer to the practice. 

We are proud to work with the Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement to end this barbaric practice.

3. Establish Independent Oversight of VDOC (HB 655)

Incarcerated people deserve to have their basic needs met and to be treated with dignity. A criminal sentence does not mean anyone deserves to endure mistreatment and torture. When the government locks people up in the name of public safety, it has a responsibility to be transparent with the public about its policies and procedures and to reassure the public that taxpayer money is not being used to fund abuse.

Problem: The prisons within the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) system are 

rampant with uninhabitable conditions, health issues, and due process violations that result from VDOC's ineffective, unaccountable grievance system. Incarcerated people who file complaints about what happens behind bars are often ignored or retaliated against, providing no path for meaningful recourse to have their basic needs met and concerns addressed.

Solution: Pass a bill to establish independent oversight of VDOC that creates two bodies - a committee of impacted people responsible for appointing the head of the second body, the independent oversight agency.

We are proud to work with the Virginia COVID-19 Justice Coalition to demand transparency from VDOC.

4. End the War on Drugs (HB 612)

Helping people with substance use disorder is a public health issue, not a criminal one. The War on Drugs criminalizes and exploits substance abuse issues that are deeply rooted in systemic inequities that affect Black, Brown, and poor people. 

Problem: All people with substance use disorders need treatment and community support to heal and recover. But that’s not the reality for people of color and poor people, who are more likely to be policed, receive harsher sentences, and serve longer sentences in prisons for this health issue. This does nothing to treat their disorder and creates barriers to recovery. 

Solution: Defelonizing drug possession is a critical first step in shifting the paradigm surrounding substance use disorder from punishment to treatment. It would not only remove barriers that make it challenging for people to get loans, housing, and employment based on a felony conviction, but also save criminal justice costs without increasing recidivism. People with substance use disorder should be treated for their illness and given the tools they need to be productive while healing instead of being criminalized and locked up. 

Legislation we are prepared to challenge

In addition to our proactive priorities, we are prepared to watch and take action against any bad bills that threaten reproductive, first amendment, and trans and nonbinary rights, or encourage classroom censorship.