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Opinion: Commentary: Facilitating Voting, Adjusting the Budget and Tackling Criminal Justice
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Opinion: Commentary: Facilitating Voting, Adjusting the Budget and Tackling Criminal Justice

Over the last month, the Virginia General Assembly has been in what’s called a “special session” to address voting in the forthcoming election, the budget and criminal justice. We have been juggling our jobs, families and other responsibilities to serve the public in this historic session.

The legislature had to revisit the state budget because the covid-19 pandemic has seriously impacted the budget we approved in February 2020. Revenues have stabilized somewhat and the state has received some federal assistance. Our money committees are now reconciling the ideas from both chambers to cut about $2 billion from the budget. Both chambers are prioritizing secondary school and healthcare spending in light of this crisis, priorities that I support.

Making Voting Easier

For the November 3 election, we made several changes which Governor Ralph Northam has signed into law. First, we authorized early voting drop boxes at the early voting polls and at the November 3 polls for people to return paper, absentee ballots. Second, we appropriated funds to pre-pay each absentee ballot return envelope. Third, we created a process for voters to cure or complete their absentee ballot if the registrar finds that the voter failed to include all required information on the return envelope.

Criminal Justice Reform

The Senate has passed significant criminal justice reform measures. The Senate police reform legislation would revamp the process to train and decertify police officers. All new Virginia officers will have state-mandated minimum training and officers will no longer be allowed to terminate decertification proceedings through resignation. Law enforcement agencies will be required to share records with new employers so that misconduct cannot be covered up. We are expanding the reasons for decertifying law enforcement officers, adding five new categories of misconduct, including improper use of force.

Our bill will put into law use-of-force standards, including bans on chokeholds and shooting into moving motor vehicles, requiring warnings before using deadly force, requiring de-escalation and stipulating use of deadly force as a last resort. These new rules could also be used to challenge an officer’s assertion of qualified immunity in a civil case.

The Senate has passed bills to reduce opportunities for racial profiling and prohibit searches of people or vehicles based solely upon an odor of marijuana. Now that the legislature decriminalized marijuana, criminal searches should not be undertaken solely because of an allegation of an odor, a situation that is impossible to challenge in court.

The Senate approved my bill to reform the current law that addresses assault on a law enforcement officer. My bill eliminates the mandatory minimum, six-month sentence, requires an investigation of incidents by an independent police officer, requires a prosecutor to approve charges and gives a judge or jury the option of convicting someone of a misdemeanor if the defendant has slight culpability and there is either no bodily injury or the defendant has either diminished mental capacity or pervasive intellectual disability.

On a 30 to 6 vote, the Senate also passed my bills to restore prosecutors’ discretion to drop charges or enter plea deals that involve rehabilitation, mental health treatment and either reduced charges or dismissal. I expect the Senate to pass a bill this week to enhance civilian review boards’ powers and to set up standards for mental health emergency response teams.

Last week, the Senate debated creating a new state lawsuit for police violations of any provision of the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of Virginia or any provision of state or federal law. The sponsors referred to it as “repealing qualified immunity,” but it was in-fact much broader than that and would have constituted a massive and unpredictable expansion of liability for local governments. We will continue to work on this legislation.

I and many of my colleagues want to increase opportunities to hold law enforcement misconduct accountable in civil courts. We will work with the House to arrive at a targeted approach in the 2021 session.

We expect this special session to conclude in the next three weeks. If you have any feedback, please email me at scott@scottsurovell.org.