Commonwealth’s Attorneys back ‘transformative’ criminal justice agenda ahead of special session

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Nearly a dozen Commonwealth’s Attorneys are speaking out in support of criminal justice reform but some disagree on how far lawmakers should go.

The group calls itself the ‘Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice’ (VPPJ) and claims to represent over 40 percent of the state’s population. In a virtual press conference on Monday, the Commonwealth’s Attorneys committed to ‘transformative change.’

That change starts with a package of criminal justice reforms being considered by the General Assembly in a special session that kicks off on August 18th. The legislation is still largely being drafted but Senate Democrats and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) have both released a list of priorities.

Hon. Stephanie Morales, Commonwealth’s Attorney for the city of Portsmouth, underscored the group’s support for police reform.

“When we say we are in support of all police officer accountability reform, that means all,” Morales said. “That is a matter of life and death for communities of people who look like me and my family.”

Morales specifically detailed a proposal that would give prosecutors ‘unrestricted access to all police reports, information, and disciplinary records of officers involved in a matter before the court.’

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said legislators stopped short of making disciplinary records public for now. He said they’re having the Freedom of Information Act Commission vet the idea.

“We were concerned about the complexity overwhelming a special session,” Sen. Surovell said.

Hampton Commonwealth’s Attorney Hon. Anton Bell said he supports banning no-knock warrants and requiring a judge sign off on serving them at night, rather than just a magistrate. Many states have considered the proposal after Breonna Taylor, a 26 year-old EMT, was shot and killed earlier this year. Officers in Louisville, Kentucky entered her home unannounced while she was asleep.

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“We’re not going to be reactive to a similar situation in Virginia. We’re going to be proactive,” Bell said.

Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Hon. Chuck Slemp, who is not a member of VPPJ, said he has concerns about several of the preliminary proposals.

“These Commonwealth’s Attorneys don’t speak for the majority in our commonwealth nor the majority of prosecutors out there,” Slemp said.

Slemp said warning potential criminals with a knock could put officers in harms way. ” I support the idea in concept as long as it can be applied in a way that we don’t handicap police from doing their job to keep people safe,” Slemp said. “Handcuffing law enforcement does nothing more than hurt the community.”

Slemp and Del. Rob Bell, a Republican who formerly served as a state prosecutor in Orange County, said they oppose the progressive group’s proposal to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. VPPJ said these mandates often force people into plea deals. They argued judges should be able to use discretion to bring individuals to justice.

Del. Bell cited mandatory minimums for child rapists and other serious crimes in defense of the policy. Asked if he would support a change for lower level crimes, Del. Bell said, “I think those are something we could talk about but the proposals that I have seen have not been to examine them one-by-one…rather they are blanket proposals that eliminate mandatory minimums altogether.”

A press release from Senate Democrats sent on June 30th listed mandatory minimum reform as a measure that is being studied and considered for the regular legislative session in 2021. The release called this and reinstating parole ‘too complex for a shortened special session.’

The VLBC listed ‘automatic expungement’ as one of its priorities for the special session.

Slemp argued that removing convictions from people’s records could put employers at a disadvantage. “I believe in giving them a second chance but I also believe in transparency,” Slemp said.

Hon. Bryan Porter, the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Alexandria, said expanding expungement is something VPPJ is ‘really fired up’ about. “There needs to be a meaningful way for people who have paid their debts to society to have their records cleaned up so they can avail themselves of educational, housing, and employment opportunities,” Porter said.

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