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Northam Announces Criminal Justice Reforms: ‘Justice Should Be Tempered With Mercy’

Governor Ralph Northam holds a microphone
(Whittney Evans/VPM)

Governor Ralph Northam announced a sweeping package of criminal justice reforms Friday in anticipation of the upcoming General Assembly session. With Democrats in control of the state house for the first time in decades, Northam is pushing a backlog of policy changes that Republicans have historically blocked.

“We are a nation of laws and punishment is appropriate for those who break those laws,” Northam said. “But it benefits no one for those punishments to be overly harsh. Justice should be tempered with mercy.”

Northam’s priorities include decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana, increasing the felony larceny threshold and reinstating parole in Virginia. He also proposed legislation to permanently ban the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and costs. The Governor passed a budget amendment last Spring that allowed 627,000 Virginians to get their licenses back, after lawmakers narrowly failed to approve a bill abolishing those suspensions.

“Civilized societies must have laws and punishments for those who break them. But justice must be fair and equitable and the punishment should fit the crime,” Northam said.

Northam said decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana will lead to fewer people in the court system and in jails. Instead, he proposed a $50 civil fee and clearing the records of people with previous convictions.

Reform advocates say they’re pleased with the governor’s announcement, but some are opposed to the $50 fine.

Adeola Ogunkeyede, legal director of Legal Aid Justice Center’s Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program, said marijuana arrests and prosecutions have a disparate impact on people of color, low income and no income people in the community. 

“We would hope that in light of that, the governor’s office would consider removing the $50 civil penalty,” she said. “Which we know, could down the line, if unpaid, result in complications that continue to destabilize those same communities.

The felony larceny threshold is another area where Governor Northam said the punishment can be out of proportion to the crime committed. Virginia is one of just 15 states where a theft of something valued less than a $1000 is a felony.  

He proposed raising the threshold to $1000.

“A felony conviction brings prison time and a lifelong mark on a person’s record,” Northam said. “But these days most cell phones are worth over $500. Stealing a cell phone shouldn’t create lifelong barriers to jobs or education.”

Incoming Virginia House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert told VPM News that Virginia has low crime rates and the lowest rate of recidivism in the nation. He warned against significant changes that he said could lead to unintended consequences.

“Doubling the amount you can steal from your neighbor without a serious consequence is, unfortunately, a prime example of the Democrats’ looming agenda on crime and criminals,” Gilbert said. 

The Governor’s office said lawmakers sponsoring his proposed bills are still in the process of filing them.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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