This year, Virginia is conducting a massive overhaul of its entire justice system. Everything from traffic stops to criminal sentencing is affected by this change. In 2020, outcry erupted across the nation after the death of George Floyd. Citizens demanded reform, and Virginia has heard those pleas.
Signed by Governor Ralph Northam in late 2020, various changes will affect how citizens are treated. Some of the reforms have already been implemented, beginning in March of 2021. Some are coming soon, scheduled to begin in July. Most of these reforms directly benefit the populace, not the authorities. Changes will be made in how and when police can stop a car. Severe mental health issues will be handled by mental health professionals with police serving only as backup. The list of benefits continues.
Anyone affected by criminal law, from judges to the accused, will be touched by this reform. In this article, we will discuss some laws that will benefit alleged and convicted criminals.
Prosecutors May Use Their Discretion to Dismiss a Case
Prior to reform, prosecutors were expected to move all possible cases forward. Regardless of whether they agreed with the evidence, it was their job to get convictions. This led to an open protest by many prosecutors in 2019. They refused to prosecute for minor cannabis charges. Much of this protest revolved around race. Despite being only 42% of Virginia’s population, black people represented 81% of the state’s cannabis arrests.
Starting in March, the state now officially trusts a prosecutor’s judgement. Prosecutors are no longer expected to simply prosecute. They may review the facts of a case, and if they don’t agree with the allegations, they can dismiss the charges.
Convicts Can Deny Jury Sentencing
Since the 18th century, Virginia juries have chosen a convict’s sentence. It is a tradition deeply rooted in the history of the state. After the reforms, jury sentencing will still be in place, but it will operate differently.
Many have argued that the current system of sentencing is rigged against the accused. All criminal trials are sentenced by a jury. The problem with this system is that juries are only informed about the minimum sentence for a crime. A judge has the option to downgrade a sentence from jail time to community service, but juries are told only about the jail time. Judges have the right to change the jury’s sentence, but they often don’t, not wanting to disrupt the jury system.
This practice puts prosecutors in a position to strike fear into alleged criminals. They can use jury sentencing to get a guilty plea. Essentially, prosecutors could tell people that if a case goes to trial, it will be sentenced by a jury, and that sentence would be harsh. By pleading guilty, alleged criminals can get a lighter sentence, denying their right to be heard in court. There is evidence that prosecutors were manipulating the system in this way. The 2019 numbers show that at least 90% of all Virginia’s convictions came from guilty pleas.
The new laws will potentially change this suspicious pattern. Starting in July of 2021, convicted criminals can choose to be sentenced by the jury or the judge. Convicts will still suffer penalties, and they will lose many of their freedoms. However, the state is giving options to people who have been found guilty. This is a bold move. It puts power in the hands of convicted criminals. This is not something we see very often in the U.S.
Inmates Have an Opportunity for an Earlier Release
For some time now, inmates have had the opportunity to gain “earned sentence credits.” By following orders, exhibiting good behavior, attending counseling sessions, and taking education courses, prisoners could earn extra days of freedom. To be exact, they could gain 4.5 days of freedom for every 30 served.
Virginia has decided to increase these days for certain non-violent offenders. Some inmates may now earn as much as 15 days of freedom for every 30 served. This could affect about 14,000 people who are currently behind bars. In total, this reform could cut down an inmate’s sentence by 33%.
Virginia also plans to update its compassionate release system, affecting sick inmates. If certain non-violent offenders have been given 12 months or less to live, they may be eligible for parole.
If you or a loved one want to know how you can benefit from these reforms, call me today. I am here to defend Virginian’s rights. My number is (540) 827-4446, and you can contact me online.