Positive Steps ForwardーLong Journey to Justice Ahead
The ACLU of Virginia commends the Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam for signing criminal legal reform legislation that would help reduce Virginia’s overdependence on incarceration and bring more justice to our system. Among the bills that the governor signed are measures to lessen the penalty for illegal possession of a less than an ounce of marijuana; raise the felony larceny threshold from $500 to $1,000; end wealth-based driver’s license suspension for good; raise the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults; allow people who were sentenced during a time when juries were not informed of Virginia’s abolishment of parole an opportunity for parole.
While the ACLU of Virginia is grateful to the legislature and the governor for our Commonwealth’s forward progress toward equality and justice, we recognize that we still have a long way to go on this journey. To begin with, the alarming danger of COVIDー19 means anyone in custody who doesn't pose a threat to others should be released immediately. We support Gov. Northam’s adding an emergency clause to HB 33 and SB 793 (the “Fishback” bills) to allow eligible people an opportunity for parole immediately. We continue to urge him to use all the tools at his disposal to reduce the population in all state and local custodial facilities and keep everyone safe.
In time of crisis, it’s even more important to address racial injustices that are rooted in government failings and bias and ensure that our criminal legal system serves justice.
We are disappointed that the governor didn’t take a step further to put racial justice at the center of Virginia’s criminal legal reform efforts. We urged the governor to repeal the prohibition on simple possession of marijuana which he chose not to do. His action allows law enforcement officers to continue to use marijuana prohibition as a policing tool disparately wielded against communities of color. The law allows police the discretion to arrest anyone deemed to possess even a small amount of marijuana with the “intent to distribute”ーa felony. We have no reason to expect that this discretion will not result in the same racial disparities that now exist in the way the War on Drugs has been waged on Black and poor communities.
The COVIDー19 pandemic response is a racial justice issue. Criminal legal reform is also a racial justice issue. Prisons and jails are not effective ways to address the social and community ills of poverty and drug use and the public health issues associated with these issues which have been brought to stark reality by the way COVID-19 is ravaging Black families and communities. In time of crisis, it’s even more important to address racial injustices that are rooted in government failings and bias and ensure that our criminal legal system serves justice.