Under current Virginia law a person who steals something of value less than $1,000 can be punished by up to 12 months in jail with fines up to $2,500 along with any restitution that might be owed. As tough as that sentence may seem, if that same person commits another misdemeanor larceny of whatever amount less than a thousand dollars within any time frame in the future, that person under current law can be jailed for between 30 days and 12 months. A third or any subsequent offense at any time in the future results in a Class 6 felony with up to five years in prison.
Persons who practice law defending individuals facing such charges tell me that the accused are most likely to be poor, and the vast majority are homeless and/or mentally ill. Upping the penalties on such persons is neither just for the vulnerable persons involved nor does it make society any safer. With thanks to Justice Forward of Virginia (justiceforwardva.com) for bringing my attention to this injustice, I introduced HB2290 that is now making its way through the House to repeal the enhanced penalties.
This bill is but one example of laws that have been on the books for years but upon examination are clearly not just laws; they do not agree with what is considered morally right or good. For most of the years I have served in the House of Delegates, I was the lone vote against a series of bills that added to the list of capital crimes. Along the way conservative Republican Frank Hargrove of Hanover County joined me in my opposition to the death penalty. In more recent years, opposition to the death penalty has grown to the point where it appears likely that the death penalty will be abolished this year by a bill of which I am a co-patron.
Abolishing the death penalty would help put just into the justice system in the Commonwealth. Between 1901 and 1981, 258 Black people were executed in Virginia at a rate nearly six times the rate of white people. Not a single white person was executed for any crime other than murder while Black persons were executed for crimes that included armed robbery and attempted sexual assault. During its history stretching back to 1608, Virginia put to death 1,300 people including the most women and young children of any state in the Union.
This legislative session may be the most historic yet in reforming the criminal justice system. Bills pending before the current session include repealing mandatory minimum sentencing, ending felony possession for drugs, reforming the broken probation system, instituting automatic expungement of criminal records, establishing pay parity for public defenders, and ending presumption against bail.
Virginians will be no less safe in their person or in their possessions when the laws become more just, fair and equally applied regardless of one’s race. Laws that are just are more likely to be respected and certainly easier to defend.