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January 3, 2020

The ACLU of Virginia commends Governor Northam for composing a legislative package that touches upon many important aspects of badly needed criminal legal reforms in the Commonwealth. In most areas, however, the governor’s proposals fall far short of what is needed to have a significant impact on the tens of thousands of Virginians being hurt by our current system, mainly people of color and those with lower incomes.

Among the true positives, permanently ending the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid court fines and fees would be a major improvement over a system that unjustly hurts people who simply cannot pay. We applaud this measure and commend the Legal Aid Justice Center for leading the way on this important issue.

Regarding marijuana, we need to move past incremental discussions about decriminalization and truly legalize simple possession and use in Virginia. Leaving a civil fine in place will continue to allow police to use a purported odor to disproportionately stop people of color for searches or to charge them with other crimes. There is no reason to wait any longer to simply strike simple possession from the criminal code.

Increasing the felony larceny threshold to $1,000 would bring Virginia to the national average. We believe an increase to $1,500 is necessary, however, to stop needlessly felonizing a disproportionate percentage of women and people of color over a minor property crime.

The governor’s proposal to consider medical conditions when deciding parole seems empathetic on its face. We do question how newly released people with serious health care issues will be expected to provide for their needs, however, particularly those who became ill while incarcerated or who have Hepatitis C but have been denied treatment by the state Department of Corrections.

We also support providing additional resources for pre-trial services, public defenders and re-entry programs, but the amount proposed is insufficient to truly address these issues on a statewide basis.

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