Today, the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran to address some major concerns that we have regarding the so-called bipartisan compromise to raise the felony larceny threshold from $200 (the lowest in the nation) to $500 while putting those convicted on probabtion until they pay all of their restitutions.
The letter specifically discussed HB 484 and SB 994, two pieces of legislation that would give judges the authority as well as mandate them to keep someone on probation indefinitely or revoke a suspended sentence simply for failing to pay restitution, without being required to make a finding regarding the defendant’s ability to pay or that the nonpayment was unreasonable.
"It is not the practice of judges around the Commonwealth currently to extend probation or revoke a suspended sentence just because a defendant fails to pay restitution," stated the letter. "What the proposed legislation does which is new is directly and statutorily connect restitution to probation. It carves out an exception for restitution (beyond other fines and fees) and elevates it to a public safety concern. It mandates that judges must equate nonpayment of restitution to more serious safety-related violations of conditions of probation."
"We understand the need to fix our system of collecting and distributing restitution but this proposal is heavy-handed and unjust. Many witnesses testifying on HB 484 admitted that some of our clerks, courts, and prosecutors do not even exercise the power they currently have to collect and distribute restitution. Before we institute a new system that is potentially unjust or unconstitutional, we should work to fix the current system of collections making better use of the existing legal means to collect any judgment. This proposal is not a fix to that system; it creates a new scheme."
"This new scheme is not cost effective. If a judge orders someone to pay restitution, the court currently can call upon probation officers to check in on defendants and the balance owed to the victim(s). This is not a costly endeavor compared to creating a new scheme of 10 years of mandated review hearings. Court hearings cost more than a probation officer checking in on defendants. Added to the potential cost of these new hearings is the possibility of 60 days in jail for contempt. Will these defendants be afforded public defenders if they cannot afford an attorney for this hearing? If not, would that be fair or constitutional? If so, this will certainly increase the cost of collecting restitution."
Overall, we believe that both HB 484 and SB 994 are heavy-handed, unjust, and costly solutions to the problems we are facing regarding both the felony larceny threshold and restitution collection. At this point, we and our partner organizations still can't support HB 484 and SB 994.
You can read the whole letter in the attached document below.