Commentary: Working To Reform Criminal Justice System

Commentary: Working To Reform Criminal Justice System

Criminal justice reform is front-and-center in Richmond this year. The theft of any item worth over $200 is considered a felony in Virginia – tying us with New Jersey for the lowest threshold in the entire United States. Raising the felony grand larceny threshold, last changed in the 1980s, has been a multi-year bipartisan effort in the Senate. This session, five Democrats and two Republicans introduced separate bills to increase the threshold to $500 or higher. I co-sponsored Senator Suetterlein’s (R-Roanoke County) SB 105, which incorporated the other seven bills. Also on my agenda is marijuana decriminalization. Unfortunately, SB 111, my bill that would have changed simple marijuana possession from a criminal offense to a fine, was unfortunately defeated Monday in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

A sign of progress did occur when the Senate voted, 23-16, to pass “ban the box” legislation from Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg) on Friday. That bill, which I co-sponsored, would require state and local agencies to wait until after a provisional offer of employment is extended to a potential employee before asking about the applicant’s conviction record. People deserve a fair shot at employment, and after someone has paid his or her debt to society, we ought to give them a true second chance.

Families like Fred and Laura Tarantino of Alexandria also deserve a second chance. Fred, an Air Force reservist, and Laura, a student at GMU who volunteers at RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) are parents seeking to adopt a brother or sister for their biological son, but due to a nonviolent drug possession conviction in Ms. Tarantino’s past, the couple cannot even be considered as candidates to adopt in Virginia until a full decade has passed since the offense. Laura, who was herself adopted from Peru at 3-weeks-old, and Fred could move to the District of Columbia, Maryland, or 47 other states, but as they told the Washington Post, “Virginia is where we have settled and what we call home, and we’d like to remain here.” Their moving testimony before the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee led the committee to unanimously pass my legislation, SB920, to lower the adoption barrier from 10 years to five years, in alignment with federal standards.

Those who fall into debt should retain the capacity to pay back those debts. In Virginia, medical professionals can have their licenses suspended if they fall into delinquency or default on student loans. The practice of revoking the means by which professionals pay back their loans is counterproductive. Worse still, the threat of license revocation only applies to medical professionals, and not other professional licensees. Why should this penalty target dental hygienists, and nurses, but not attorneys, architects, or accountants? The bill I introduced, SB919, a companion to HB456, carried by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) will protect those individuals burdened by student-loan debt and ensure that they have the capacity to keep their licenses, continue serving the community, and repay what they owe.

Punishment should fit the crime. Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) and I have introduced legislation, SB181, which eliminates the automatic revocation of driver’s licenses for those who fail to pay their court fees and fines in a timely manner. SB181 passed the Senate Courts of Justice, 12-2, and was referred to the Senate Finance Committee to fit into the budget before considering whether to advance it to the full Senate vote. It doesn’t make sense to take away a person’s means to get to work if they are struggling to pay a debt, especially when the offense in question is not related to driving.

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It is my continued honor to serve the people of the 30th District.