Opinion: Commentary: Work Continues After Session Ends

Opinion: Commentary: Work Continues After Session Ends

The 2019 Session adjourned “sine die” on Feb. 24. With its end, single- and double-digit license plates flooded onto I-64 and I-95 leaving Richmond. My staff and I stayed behind for several days, re-reading and responding to over 1,000 constituent emails and letters received throughout the session. Many of these letters helped me make decisions on bills; others provided ideas for next year’s legislative agenda.

Seven bills I introduced have passed both chambers and await the Governor’s signature. SB1231, which I put in at the request of Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter, will ensure that individuals accused of capital murder, but found to be permanently mentally incompetent and unable to participate in their own defense, cannot be released without a court order. SB1233 will ban state agencies like the Department of Elections from using software banned for federal use by the Department of Homeland Security, safeguarding Virginians’ personal data and our state elections from foreign interference. Working with Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), I introduced SB1736, which bans the distribution of revenge pornography videos known as “Deepfakes.” These are convincingly-edited videos that falsely portray individuals in sexual acts in order to humiliate them.

But all successes don’t occur on the legislative floor. I am pursuing alternative solutions in the interim for several bills which failed this session. This year I introduced SB1498 to address concerns over abuse at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center (SVJC), a youth detention center which contracts with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to hold undocumented youth until their immigration hearings. Last summer, pro-bono attorneys chronicled a number of disturbing allegations, including physical abuse, lack of mental health care, and the use of extended solitary confinement at the facility. In response, the Virginia Department of Public Safety conducted a study of the facility and suggested changes to SVJC protocols. However, since it is not a state-owned center, SVJC was not required to comply. These recommendations failed to address all of the issues at the facility and were unenforceable. My legislation would have required the promulgation of enforceable regulations including hiring additional mental health counselors and bilingual staff, as well as providing training for trauma-informed care. While this bill failed in committee on a tie vote, I am now engaging with stakeholders and the Department of Juvenile Justice, which oversees this facility. I will work to ensure we are providing these youth with adequate mental health services, protecting them from abuse, and giving them language-appropriate education.

I will also be working in the interim with the Board of Housing and Community Development to create safety regulations for trampoline parks. A burgeoning and unregulated industry in Virginia, trampoline parks pose a high risk of injury. Without regulation, those who suffer debilitating injuries are often left without any legal recourse — even if the park was in violation of basic, nationally recognized safety standards. My bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support but died in a House subcommittee. I have taken my concerns directly to the board that will consider this idea during this year’s regulatory cycle.

Now that the session has ended, legislators will begin putting a great deal of effort into Virginia’s 2019 campaigns. The stakes are especially high this year since all 100 House of Delegates seats and all 40 Senate seats are up for re-election. The razor thin Republican advantage in both bodies means legislators will be working hard to hold their seats while supporting challengers in other districts, seeking to sway the partisan balance of both chambers.

Though session is the most intensive time for my team and me, this “part-time” position continues at full bore throughout the entire the year. It sometimes feels like a never-ending cycle, but each year comes with new rewards and challenges, and an ever-growing appreciation at the privilege it is to represent my constituents in the Senate of Virginia.

It is my continued honor to serve the 30th District,