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Northam proposes sweeping criminal justice reforms

(AP) Gov. Ralph Northam is promising sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system that include decriminalizing marijuana, softening the penalties for people caught stealing smaller-dollar items, and reducing the number of Virginians whose driver’s licenses are suspended.

Northam, a Democrat, said at a Jan. 3 news conference in Richmond that he wants Virginia to approach criminal justice with compassion, fairness and mercy.

“Civilized societies must have laws and punishments for those who break them,” Northam said at OAR Richmond, a center that provides services to adults newly released from jail or prison. “But justice must be fair and equitable, and the punishment should fit the crime.”

Northam’s package is part of an ambitious agenda Democrats have promised to pass after winning legislative elections two months ago. Democrats are set to have complete control of the state house for the first time in a generation when the 2020 legislative session gavels in next week.

The proposed criminal justice overhaul is also part of Northam’s bigger push to address long-standing racial disparities in a state that was once capital of the Confederacy. The governor has made a strong comeback after nearly being forced from office last year over a scandal involving blackface, and has prioritized efforts to promote racial justice in a number of areas.

Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said Northam is proposing “the boldest and most transformative” criminal justice reform in at least several decades, if not the state’s history.

Specifically, the governor wants to replace criminal charges for people caught possessing marijuana with a $50 fine; raise the state’s felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000; reduce the number of crimes whose punishments include driver’s license suspensions and increase the number of people eligible for parole.

Northam said Virginia isn’t ready to legalize marijuana like some other states have done. But he said decriminalization is needed because too many young people, especially people of color, are stuck with a criminal record due to simple marijuana possession charges. He said about 29,000 Virginians were charged with marijuana-related charges in 2018.

The governor also said Virginia needs to raise the felony threshold to prevent Virginians from getting a “lifelong mark” on their record for stealing relatively low-dollar items.

“Stealing a cellphone shouldn’t create lifelong barriers to jobs or education,” Northam said.

Northam helped broker a compromise with Republicans last year that raised the state’s felony threshold from $200 to $500, but said this month that amount is still too low.

Republicans who previously led the General Assembly have generally favored a tough-on-crime approach and Northam’s proposals are likely to face significant GOP pushback.

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

Gilbert said Virginia’s current criminal justice system isn’t perfect but has helped produce some of the lowest crime and recidivism rates in the country.

The governor also wants to extend parole eligibility for prisoners who are elderly, sick or were sentenced by a juries in the years directly after the state abolished parole.

While Virginia took parole off the table in 1995, judges weren’t required to inform juries about that change until 2000. As a result, uninformed jurors during those five years gave some offenders inflated sentences, thinking they’d serve just part of their prison term before being paroled, advocates and attorneys say.

And Northam said he wants to cement changes he’s made involving suspending driver’s licenses. The governor used a budget maneuver earlier this year to restore suspended driver’s licenses to people with unpaid court costs.

Northam said he wants to make those changes permanent while eliminating driver’s license suspensions for drug crimes and other non-driving related convictions.

Brianna Morgan, a single mother from Petersburg who went years without a driver’s license because of unpaid court debt, praised Northam for trying to reform what she said is a broken system that unfairly traps low-income people.

“It was unjust, I couldn’t go to the grocery store. I couldn’t go to the doctor. I couldn’t hang out with friends, I couldn’t do anything,” she said.

Northam’s criminal justice reform agenda includes $2.7 million to establish a public defender office in Prince William County and $5.6 million for additional district court clerk positions.

-ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press

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