Commentary: Punishment Should Fit the Crime

Commentary: Punishment Should Fit the Crime

Criminal Justice reform has been a hallmark issue for me in my time in the Virginia Legislature. I serve on the House of Delegates Courts of Justice Committee, the Committee on District Courts, and the Virginia Crime Commission. As a lawyer, I believe in justice, and that means we must aspire to a legal system that promotes equality under the law. It means trusting our police force — and making sure that they have the resources they need to engage our community in the respectful and professional manner we have become accustomed to in Alexandria. It means working toward rehabilitation instead of being happy only with punishment, and it means ensuring that we have a way to fix mistakes that can happen along the way. This year I have once again filed several bills and working with others to move the issue forward.

One of the hallmark tenants of modern society is proportional response — the punishment should fit the crime. One of this session’s most hotly debated issues is the idea that there should be an increase in the felony threshold for grand larceny. When we attach monetary figures into the Code of Virginia, the amounts are set until the legislature changes them again. The current threshold was set in the 1980s and has not been increased since. Our felony larceny threshold of $200 is outdated, especially compared with other states. It has a disproportionate impact on our correctional system and perpetuates a cycle of recidivism which requires greater investment of resources to break. While all of these bills have been referred to the Rules Committee in the House of Delegates, this week we saw some movement on the Senate side with SB 105, which has passed not only from committee, but through the body with a bipartisan majority. I have signed on to support the House version of the bill which increases the threshold to $500.

When a person is sentenced, trusted Virginia judges have a sweeping scope of authority with which to hand down a sentence. Most of the time this falls within sentencing guidelines that are produced for various criminal thresholds and particular crimes. However, sometimes a sentence is handed down that is either lighter or harsher than the sentencing guidelines normalize. In Virginia, the judge is then required to write an explanation of the divergence from the norm. My bill HB 1055 closes a loophole in the process and will ensure that if you are convicted of a crime and sentenced you have a way to request the reasoning behind the punishment, if you have been sentenced outside of established norms. Transparency is a hallmark of good government and that even extends to the criminal justice system.

In addition to transparency and fairness, I believe in compassion. One of my constituents came to me with a problem. She made a mistake in her youth, and with a drug felony found out that she could not fulfill her dreams of adopting a child. This person has done everything possible to be a contributing member of society — having her rights restored, volunteering in the community, and advocating for people looking to adopt or foster. This is where compassion comes into play. Virginia has some of the most restrictive laws on the books when it comes to allowing an individual to foster or adopt. While the wellbeing of children is paramount, antiquated and arbitrary restrictions have room to adapt to the modern age, and still ensure children’s safety. HB 437 will ease restrictions on those looking to foster or adopt, and it will include safeguards like drug testing to ensure safe placement of children.

Fairness, transparency, and compassion are qualities I look for in our criminal justice system. While the legislation I have proposed and joined onto are small changes, I believe small changes can have large impacts.

Charniele Herring represents Alexandria City’s 46th District in the Virginia General Assembly where she serves as House Minority Caucus Chair and on the Courts of Justice, Counties, Cities, and Towns, and Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committees. Visit