2021-2-10

Bill to reduce felony drug possession charges dies in subcommittee

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers hoped to advance a bill that would eliminate felony drug possession charges and shift a focus to treatment, not punishment, of substance abuse. The measure had bipartisan support and backing from many commonwealth attorneys’ and lawyers around the state, but it died in a House subcommittee. 

Anyone found in possession of controlled substances would face misdemeanor charges under House Bill 2303 introduced by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. The bill would also amend the conditions set for probation under the current first offender statute, which allows drug possession charges to be dismissed if certain conditions are met.

A person caught with the possession of a schedule I or schedule II controlled substances under the current law could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison. That includes drugs with high potential for abuse and dependence such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Possession of items with drug residue on them can also lead to felony charges, such as a crack pipe or heroin needle.

Under Virginia’s first offender statute individuals with no previous narcotic criminal record may get their case dismissed if they successfully pass a treatment program, make efforts to maintain employment, complete community service and remain drug and alcohol free during probation. 

Hudson proposed changes to the statute that requires people to continue being tested but not that they continue to test negative. Hudson said that is in recognition “that relapse is a part of recovery from any drug abuse.”

Hudson said that incarcerating someone for drug possession is not the correct way to treat substance abuse.

“It’s a concrete step we can take this year to reduce the harmful consequences of prolonged incarceration as an ineffective deterrent and treatment strategy for substance abuse,” Hudson said during the House Courts of Justice subcommittee hearing for the bill. 

Nathan Mitchell, community outreach and advocacy coordinator at the Henrico County-based McShin Foundation, said the bill is the first step toward reforming the criminal justice system. The McShin Foundation offers multiple programs for those in recovery from substance abuse.

Mitchell, a former felon , said the current system can be damaging to people who suffer from the disease of addiction.

“I became a felon,” Mitchell said. “And with that all of my civil rights, my ability to vote, my ability to run for office, serve on a jury, have a gun were all taken away with one fell swoop.” 

Anyone charged with a felony in Virginia loses civil rights such as the right to vote, hold office, and serve as a juror. The bill would remove felony violations of drug possession from the definition of barrier crimes related to criminal history checks for employment and a range of volunteer opportunities. 

“Health care problems require health care solutions and HB 2303 is a good first step at recognizing that drugs and substance use disorder are not a criminal justice issue,” Mitchell said. “They are in fact, a health care issue.”

Misdemeanor possession is already employed in many states such as Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi and also neighboring states such as West Virginia, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

 “It is a drug reform that has bipartisan support coast to coast,” Hudson said.

South Carolina and Iowa have enacted similar legislation and utilize escalating penalties where the punishment increases with every subsequent offense, according to Attorney Steve Mutnick, who serves as General Assembly counsel. In Iowa, a first time drug possession offense is a one-year misdemeanor. However, the third offense is a five-year felony. 

“Continuing to accelerate the penalty and incarcerate someone for longer doesn’t seem to really get at the root cause,” Hudson said.

Norfolk Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi testified in support of the bill on behalf of six commonwealth’s attorneys from across the state.

“Substance abuse disorder is a matter of public health and that the primary focus of dealing with a public health issue should be the public health system,” Fatehi said. 

Though the legislation marks a departure from the state’s approach to drug possession, Fatehi said the measure would bring Virginia in alignment with neighboring states and the federal system. 

Fatehi said the only concern they had was directly addressed by the language in a budget amendment submitted by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield. The budget amendment would divert money saved from less incarceration due to reduced felony drug possession charges into treatment programs. Coyner said that jails report there aren’t enough treatment service programs.

“This is a rare instance where we can both be more just and create a significant cost savings for the people of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Fatehi said.

Supporters of the bill pointed out that the legislation was not decriminalizing or legalizing drugs or condoning the use of hard drugs. The measure also would not reduce felony charges for people caught distributing drugs or possessing drugs to distribute. 

“There is no simple possession that is worth more than 12 months in jail,” Fatehi said.

Richard Johnson, with the Virginia Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he lost his nephew to a heroin addiction. 

“Instead of policy wise trying to teach people with addiction a lesson, this legislation tries to solve the problem,” Johnson said.

The panel never picked Hudson’s bill back up before crossover day, which is when each chamber must complete voting on any bills that will be advanced to the other chamber. Delegates said the bill was important, but there was concern about having enough time to secure the funding needed to redirect into treatment. A substitute was submitted on Feb. 3 but never heard before the subcommittee.

Hudson said the bill addressed the most immediate harms. 

“We will go another year of marking another wave of Virginias with this stamp that bears life long consequences,” she said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

Virginia Legislators Kill Special Education Bill

By Katharine DeRosa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia lawmakers killed a proposal that would allow some special education students another year of instruction because of the struggles of virtual learning caused by COVID-19.

House Bill 2277 proposed that high school students with special needs who are set to graduate in the 2021 school year and who are 22 years old after Sept. 30, 2020, be allowed to take an extra year and graduate in 2022. Students who are younger than 22 are automatically eligible for another year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

“While other students might have more time to make up whatever was lost because of COVID-19, the kids that were going to age out this year will never get that chance,” said Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville.

Virginia students with disabilities age out of the school system at 22 years old, according to the VDOE. Those 22 and older are dependent on the bill if they want to attend another year of high school.

Each student with disabilities in Virginia develops an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, throughout their education. The VDOE provides tips for helping parents and teachers navigate a student's IEP amid virtual learning. Tips include practicing communication skills, hands-on, non-digital activities and documenting progress for a teacher’s review.

Special education students have had a difficult time thriving in the virtual learning environment, Bell said during the bill’s subcommittee meeting. He said the final year of school is crucial to prepare special needs students for post high school life.

“It is heartbreaking to think what those kids are going to have to do to manage,” Bell said.

The legislation didn’t make it past crossover day, when bills must pass the chamber in which they originated. 

“The bill is simple,” Bell told legislators during the bill’s hearing. “It’s not easy, but it’s simple.”

Bell said he introduced the measure because he has a personal attachment to special education. His 18-year-old son attends the Virginia Institute of Autism in Charlottesville. 

Bell said he wants the change to be made, whether through this legislation or another method. 

“If for some reason it's easier or better to do it, just through the budget that's fine too,” Bell said.

Bell said he was not surprised the bill didn’t pass because of how much money it would cost to implement. The bill’s passage would require an additional 1,000 students to be served, which would cost $5 million during the 2022 fiscal year, according to the legislation’s impact statement. 

Bell introduced an amendment to the state budget that adds $5 million to public education. The money would provide free public education as deemed by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The proposed budget for state education assistance in 2022 is $7.8 billion.

“I’m hopeful that they will see this as a priority,” Bell said. 

The bill passed out of committee, but it died in appropriations. 

There are almost 168,000 students with disabilities currently enrolled in Virginia public schools, according to the VDOE. In the 2019-2020 school year, 84 students with disabilities were over the age of 22, according to the VDOE. A total of $12,111 is spent per public school student each year, VDOE stated on its website.

Renesha Parks, director of exceptional education at Richmond Public Schools, said HB 2277 has pros and cons. 

“I do feel that because of their age, they probably should be with age-appropriate peers,” Parks said.

Park said students would benefit from working with community partners instead of continuing in high school. The success of these students depends on public schools connecting them with resources as they enter adulthood, she said.

RPS works with Resources for Independent Living, the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and the Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence, the VCU Center on Transition Innovation and SOAR365, Parks said. The organizations offer a variety of services, including working with adults to set up plans for higher education, job training, employment and independent living. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

Kandy Bryant Poarch

May 30, 1973-February 7, 2021

Kandy Bryant Poarch, 47, of Pleasant Shade in Emporia, Virginia, passed away Sunday, February 7, 2021. Kandy graduated from Greensville Co. High School, where she also began her education to become an LPN. She later became a RN and obtained her Master’s Degree in Nursing. Kandy has worked locally for over 25 years as a nurse at GMH, SVRMC, and presently served as Director of Nursing of Accordius Health at Emporia. Kandy was a dedicated nurse and is well known for her compassion for others and her patients.

Kandy is preceded in death by her maternal grandparents, Byron and Betty Dunn; paternal grandparents, Robert and Pattie Bryant; and father-in-law, Randolph Poarch.

Left to cherish her memory are her husband, Ron Poarch; daughter, Shirlkay Poarch; son, Bryant Poarch; loving dog, Elvis; parents, Edward and Kay Bryant; brother, Frankie Bryant (Tonya); brother-in-law, Brian Poarch (Mary Beth); mother-in-law, Shirley Poarch; nieces, Sarah Poarch, Jane Poarch, and Natalie Bryant; and nephew, Nikolas Bryant.

A private funeral service will be held on Thursday, February 11, 2021, with private interment at Emporia Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Kandy Bryant Poarch Memorial Foundation to benefit nursing home patients in need. Contributions can be mailed to the foundation in care of Frankie Bryant at 1941 Sussex Drive Emporia, VA 23847.

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