Criminal justice reform in Virginia is an ongoing process. Sometimes that process brings good news, other times not so good. Recently, it brought good and bad over the course of six short days.
Wednesday, April 4: Gov. Ralph Northam signs Senate Bill 105, increasing the monetary threshold for grand larceny. (Good news!)
Monday, April 9: University of Virginia School of Law presents its Virginia Criminal Justice Policy Reform Project to the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission after finding “wide discrepancies in alternative sentencing for low-risk offenders.” (Bad news.)
Less Jail Time for Sneaker-Stealers
The good news came as Virginia lawmakers passed a piece of criminal justice reform that was a long time coming.
Felony larceny could come with a year of jail time. The threshold for that was $200.
Thanks to the newly signed Senate Bill 105, that threshold is now $500.
Starting July 1, a person won’t be considered a felon — or forced to clog up an overcrowded prison — for stealing certain pairs of sneakers or winter jackets.
The bill’s passage was especially significant because a bipartisan group of state senators had spent years trying to get this accomplished. The House of Delegates had been firmly standing in the way, changing its mind only when Northam backed separate House legislation, ensuring court-ordered restitution.
They Could’ve Made Me Go to Rehab, but They Said, “No, No, No!”
What the University of Virginia is calling a “first-of-its-kind survey of state judges” found that thousands of low-risk offenders who are eligible for alternative sentences, like going to rehab instead of incarceration, don’t receive them.
In 1994, after Virginia abolished parole, the sentencing commission developed a method for identifying low-risk offenders and keeping them out of prisons. Now there’s a worksheet that evaluates criminal histories and characteristics using a points system. Add up the points; see if a person is eligible for an alternative sentence.
But whatever the result of the worksheet is, it’s nonbinding. Because of that, the study found “enormous inconsistency between judges and courts,” and many judges are choosing to not even consider the alternatives.
“The findings on the use of alternative sentencing for low-risk offenders in Virginia raise new questions about how risk assessment is used in practice,” said Brandon Garrett, a professor who co-authored the report.
Those are questions that legislators should work to resolve.
On to the Next Good News
While it is good that studies like this are taking place and reports are being penned, it’s unacceptable that there are injustices there to uncover in the first place.
And although common-sense criminal justice reform being signed into law is good news, we can’t stop there.
Virginia is making progress, but lawmakers cannot rest on their laurels. That goes for legislators across the country — including Washington, D.C.
Sign this petition and join us in telling Congress to pass legislation that ensures punishments better fit the crimes and counterproductive laws are taken off the books!