Fall 2020 Capital News Service

Poll of Virginia voters favors Biden; shows mixed support for mail-in voting

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A poll released this week by the Virginia Commonwealth University L. Douglas Wilder School of Government shows presidential candidate Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner leading by double-digit margins in the commonwealth. 

The Richmond-based university conducted a telephone poll of just over 800 adults from Aug. 28 to Sept. 7. 

The results show Democratic nominee Biden ahead of President Donald Trump by 14 percentage points (53% to 39%). Warner, a Democrat who has represented Virginia in Congress for more than a decade, is ahead of his Republican challenger Daniel Gade by 17 percentage points (55% to 38%). The poll had a margin of error of 5.17 percentage points for all adults sampled and 6.22 percentage points for likely voters.

Biden is leading in the Northern, South Central and Tidewater regions of the state, while Trump leads in Western and Northwestern Virginia. 

Stephen Farnsworth, director at the Fredericksburg-based University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said that Trump’s message resonates with rural voters in the western part of the state.

“His focus on the message of Christian conservatives resonates well in rural areas,” Farnsworth said. “Trump has appointed politically conservative judges, and Christians have been well served by him.”

Farnsworth said that Trump tends to lose in suburban areas of Virginia such as Northern Virginia, where voters tend to be socially progressive but fiscally conservative.

The poll also provided insight into the demographics of Biden voters. 

“Something that was interesting was the strength of women as an indicator of support for Biden,” said Farrah Stone, who directed the VCU poll.

Women were more likely to support Biden over Trump by 22 percentage points (58% to 36%). Men preferred Biden over Trump by five percentage points (47% to 42%). In July, a Wilder School poll found that men were more likely to say they would vote for Trump.

The poll also shows Biden’s nomination of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate does not significantly affect his support among women or minorities. 

“If you’re looking at Kamala Harris, there aren’t significant differences between whites and minorities, or men and women,” Stone said. “What was significant was whether you were a Democrat or Republican.” 

Farnsworth said that vice presidential candidates often don’t change people’s votes, but they can help a candidate by increasing turnout among people who support the candidate but wouldn’t otherwise vote.

“If Biden’s pick of Harris ramps up turnout among African American voters, then that was a smart decision by Biden,” Farnsworth said. “This election is largely frozen in place; there aren’t many voters who are undecided.”

Hillary Clinton secured a Democratic victory in the commonwealth during the last presidential race, beating Trump by over 212,000 votes. The 2016 turnout of registered voters was higher than in 2012, but lower than 2008, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. 

The poll also asked voters about an issue that has recently come to the forefront of election news: the reliability of mail-in voting. 

Virginians are split on whether mail-in voting is trustworthy. When combined, 50% of respondents are “somewhat or very confident” that mail-in votes will be accurately cast and counted, while a combined 48% are not too or not at all confident about the process. Trust in mail-in voting is affected by party affiliation, with a majority of Republicans finding it untrustworthy, according to the VCU poll. 

“The differences are significant across party lines, which line up with voting and support for Trump,” Stone said. 

Sixty-seven percent of Republicans said they were “not at all” or “not too” confident in the accuracy of mail-in ballots. 

“Trump has tried to increase public doubts about mail-in voting,” Farnsworth said. “No previous candidates have emphasized mail-in voting this much, but it’s never been this significant before.”

Virginia bill seeks to guarantee free school meals to students advances to Senate

By Aliviah Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

House Bill 5113, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, passed the chamber unanimously. Roem’s bill requires eligible public elementary and secondary schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“School food should be seen as an essential service that is free for everyone regardless of their income,” Roem said.

The program allows all students in an eligible school to receive free breakfast and lunch. Currently, 425 schools are eligible for CEP but don’t take part in the program, according to a document that details the financial impact of the legislation. More than 420 schools and 200,000 students participated in CEP during the 2018 to 2019 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education. 

The bill allows eligible schools to opt out of the program if participating is not financially possible.
Most Virginia food banks have purchased twice as much food each month since the pandemic started when compared to last year, according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“We're just seeing a lot of need out there and we know that school meal programs are really the front line of ensuring that kids in Virginia have the food they need to learn and thrive,” Oliver said.

Virginia school districts qualify for CEP if they have 40% or more enrolled students in a specified meal program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It also includes homeless, runaway, migrant and foster children, Roem said.

Sandy Curwood, director of the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs, said school districts receive federal reimbursement based on a formula. 

“Making sure that children have access to good healthy food, and particularly through school meals I think is a great opportunity,” Curwood said.

The federal government will reimburse schools who have more than 62.5% students who qualify for free meals, Roem said. Schools with between 55% and 62.4% students enrolled will receive between 80% and 99% reimbursement. 

“If HB 5113 is law, how their children will eat during the school day will be one less worry for students and their families,”, said Semora Ward, community organizer for the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. The meals are available whether children are physically in schools or attending virtual classes.

The Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative has raised $8,000 in the past three years for unpaid school meals in Hampton and Newport News, according to Ward.

“While we are pleased with these efforts and the outpouring of community support, we should have never had to do this in the first place,” she said. 

Roem was one of several legislators that took on the USDA earlier this year to not require students to be present when receiving free school meals during the pandemic. The Virginia General Assembly passed Roem’s bill earlier this year that allows school districts to distribute excess food to students eligible for the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA.

HB 5113 has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Virginia female lawyers, lawmakers remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is being mourned by the country, and in Virginia, female lawyers and legislators are reflecting on her legacy. Some called her a role model, others called her a trailblazer, but they all admired the impact she left.

Ginsburg died Friday at age 87 from complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Alison McKee, president of the Virginia Bar Association, said Ginsburg was one of the most empowering women in the law profession. The VBA is a membership organization of state attorneys who promote legislative changes.

“She was an extraordinary force in attempts to overcome gender inequality,” McKee said. “Overall, to borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandberg, she leaned in for all women in our profession and helped to close the gap on gender inequality.”

Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality changed a Virginia college’s admissions process in the 1990s. She wrote the majority opinion in the 1996 case that allowed women to attend the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. VMI was the last male-only college in the United States until the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion that since a 1971 ruling, the Court “has repeatedly recognized” laws incompatible with the equal protection principle and that denied women access “simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.”

Ginsburg was also a longtime advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that seeks to guarantee equal rights for all regardless of sex.The ERA first passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. In January, Virginia became the final state needed to ratify the amendment, though the 1982 deadline has passed. A congressional bill to eliminate the ratification deadline passed the House in February and is sitting in a Senate committee. Over the years Ginsburg has still vocalized support for the ERA, though in February she saidshe would like “it to start over.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, was a co-patron of the ERA in Virginia.

“I think we’re carrying on her work, carrying on her legacy to make life, liberty and justice for all include all and include women equally,” McClellan said. “We carried on her work with that, very much an inspiration there too.”

Del. Hala Ayala, D-Woodbridge, who was a co-patron on the ERA in the House of Delegates, called Ginsburg “our firewall to protect civil rights, voting rights and everything that we fight for” in a statement Friday night.

“My life’s work for women’s equal justice, including championing the Equal Rights Amendment in the Virginia House of Delegates, was inspired by Justice Ginsburg’s work,” Ayala wrote. “Her determined spirit gave me the motivation to fight everyday for what is right, knowing that we would make our Commonwealth and our country a better place.”

Ginsburg was a pioneer for women in the law profession, becoming the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 after Sandra Day O’Connor.

Margaret Hardy, president of the Virginia Women Attorneys Association, said seeing someone that looked like her in the law profession is “critically important,” and that’s why diversity is important—so everyone has a role model.

“I think that just seeing a woman because in her case, in many instances, she was the woman, not just one of many,” Hardy said. “I think just for anyone seeing someone in a profession that you’re entering who looks just like you is an inspiration.”

Lucia Anna “Pia” Trigiani, former president of the Virginia Bar Association, called Ginsburg a role model for all lawyers, not just women.

“For her to do what she did, she also showed not only women that it could be done, but men,” Trigiani said. “She showed everyone that it could be done.”

McClellan equated Ginsburg to civil rights lawyer and former Justice Thurgood Marshall.

“I think she for women’s rights was what Thurgood Marshall was for civil rights,” McClellan said. “I as a woman lawyer, as a woman lawmaker, stand on her shoulders.”

Efforts falter to require schools to provide in-person options

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- An effort to require Virginia school districts provide in-person classes to students with poor internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic is most likely dead. 

House Bill 5009, introduced by Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, would require public schools to offer in-person classes to elementary, middle and high school students who have substandard internet connections at home. 

The bill was referred in August to the House Committee on Education during the Virginia General Assembly special session, but the legislation still hasn’t been addressed as the legislature nears crossover day—when each chamber must act on bills for them to advance.

“Anything still left in committee, will essentially die. So it doesn’t look like this bill will progress,” Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, who co-sponsored the bill, said in an email. 

Mark Cole’s bill would have required schools to provide in-person instruction to individuals who can’t access an internet speed of more than 10 megabits per second download and one Mbps upload. 

“This is an equity issue,” Mark Cole wrote in an email earlier this month. “Some children do not have access to the internet or internet of sufficient capacity to be able participants in online instruction, primarily rural and poor children.”

More than 1 million public school students were slated to start school in an online-only format, according to data posted in August by the Virginia Public Access Project. That includes Fairfax County, home to almost 189,000 students. More than 269,000 children were set to start school in a hybrid format that offers in-person and online instruction. Many of those students are located in rural areas. Hanover County, which enrolls more than 17,500 students, is the largest school district offering a blended format, according to VPAP. 

Russell County in Southwest Virginia is among the schools offering an in-person and online learning format. The school has set up an internet hotspot on school grounds to help students download material for class, and zip drives to store what they download, according to Janice Barton, a teacher at the school. High schools in the surrounding area have also done the same, Barton said. 

Even though schools are offering ways to access the internet, they’re still not offering high-speed access, Mark Cole said.

“This still puts children without high speed internet at a disadvantage over those that can participate in the comfort of their homes,” he said. “Children have to be driven to a hotspot, often a school parking lot, where they try to receive instruction while sitting in their car.”

Joshua Cole believes children should have an equal opportunity to learn without having to worry about attending online classes.

“If you don’t have internet, if you don’t have high speed internet, if your speeds are low, we want to make sure that your student is not left out,” he said. 

Stafford County gives some students an opportunity to come to school if they need to, said Joshua Cole, who is one of the county’s representatives in the House. The lawmaker said only some students are attending in-person classes in Stafford County, primarily students with disabilities or those without reliable internet access.

“It's not a bunch of students coming in,” he said.

Fredericksburg City Public Schools partnered with business owners in the area who are helping fund internet hotspots for students to access from their homes, according to Joshua Cole.

Many schools that are offering in-person instruction have created spaces to accommodate students and follow social distancing guidelines.

“We have signs in the hallways, in our classrooms. We have it set up 6 feet apart,” Barton said. “We have cleaning supplies, every teacher has that.”

Russell County Public Schools also provide students and teachers with masks, Barton said. 

Senate Bill 5114, sponsored by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville, had similar wording to Mark Cole’s bill, but it was passed by indefinitely, which means the bill is dead unless the committee takes additional action.

House Advances MARCUS Alert Bill

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The House of Delegates approved a bill Thursday that would create teams of mental health service providers and peer recovery specialists to accompany police officers responding to individual crises.

House Bill 5043, introduced by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, was approved by a vote of 57-39. The legislation needs passage from the state Senate and a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam to become law. 

“This was brought about by a tragedy,” Bourne said.

Dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services (MARCUS) alert system, Bourne’s proposal references the death of a Black man who was shot and killed during an encounter with the Richmond Police Department in 2018.

Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus, was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer as he charged the officer after a taser was deployed. Peters was unarmed and his family said he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

“It’s horrific to watch,” Bourne said about police body camera footage of the incident.

Bourne’s bill would require the Virginia Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and Criminal Justice Services departments to work together to create evidence-based training programs for the care teams and to develop a plan by June 1, 2021 for statewide implementation.

Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, said she supports the end goal of the proposal but is concerned it will endanger more people without a slower rollout and because mental health resources are “stretched thin.”

Coyner said she is “very emotional” about the issue after growing up with an aunt who suffered from intellectual disabilities and who attempted suicide multiple times. She said while over time, “mental health providers did everything they could,” her family ultimately had to call 911 for the police’s help.

“If we had to wait longer for someone to arrive, she may not have been with us still,” Coyner said.

Del. Michael Mullin, D-Newport News, said he appreciated Coyner’s words and understands the concern for public safety. However, Mullin — an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Hampton — said the state has “criminalized mental health issues.”

“So much of the work we have been doing today and in the days preceding this has been to reverse 30 years of overcriminalization,” Mullin said. “This bill does a small step in making sure that individuals who are in crisis are not treated as criminals.”

Princess Blanding, Peters’ sister, recently testified during the bill’s hearing before the House Public Safety Committee. She said her brother “absolutely deserved help, not death” on the day of his fatal shooting.

“When a person’s kidneys stop functioning properly, they receive dialysis if needed,” Blanding said. “When a person’s heart stops functioning properly, they receive bypass surgery if needed. But the brain is the only major organ that, when it stops functioning properly, we demonize, we incarcerate, and in the case of so many Black people, death is the final answer.”

Blanding has spoken at multiple demonstrations in Richmond since protests sparked by the death of George Floyd began in late May, demanding the city fully fund the alert system as well as establish a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Senate Bill 5038, introduced by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, also seeks to establish an alert system. It still needs to pass the Senate before moving to the House of Delegates.

House, Senate committees advance bills for expungement of criminal records

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia House and Senate committees have advanced legislation that would remove certain criminal records in a criminal justice reform effort that allows people to petition for expungement of convictions, not just charges. 

Senate Bill 5043, sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and House Bill 5146, sponsored by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, would expand the current expungement process. Police and court records are currently only expunged if an individual is acquitted, a case is dismissed or abandoned. 

Deeds said the bill expands the cases available for expungement and will create an easier process for individuals seeking expungement. 

Deeds’ bill heads to the Senate floor after moving through two Senate committees. The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee gave the bill the green light Thursday with a 16-0 vote. Herring’s bill was approved by the House Appropriations Committee with a 13-9 vote.

Deed’s bill would allow expungement of records for cases such as misdemeanor marijuana possession, underage alcohol or tobacco possession, and using a fake ID to buy alcohol. The bill allows expungement five years past conviction and once court fines have been paid. The bill excludes violent felonies and drug-related offenses such as marijuana possession over an ounce, distribution of drugs to a person under 18, and the manufacturing, possession or distribution of controlled substances like heroin and methamphetamine.

“Simple marijuana possession is no longer a crime in Virginia, so you ought to be able to expunge those convictions,” Deeds said.

Herring’s bill creates an automatic system that after eight years expunges certain charges that have been abandoned or dismissed, as well as certain convictions, including some felonies if there are no subsequent convictions.

The current process includes filing a petition, being fingerprinted, paying a filing fee and possibly attending a court hearing, according to Colin Drabert, deputy director of the Virginia State Crime Commission, who spoke during a commission hearing Monday. Virginia is one of nine states that do not allow the expungement of a misdemeanor and one of 14 states that do not allow the expungement of a felony, he said. 

Virginia State Police receive approximately 4,000 expungement orders for non-convictions per year for the past three years, Drabert said. If Herring’s bill passes,  cases that are acquitted, dismissed or a nolle prosequi entered, will be automatically expunged by the court handling the case -- excluding traffic violations. For convictions, Herring’s bill outlines a new, at least monthly process that has state police provide to the courts an electronic list of qualifying offenses that meet automatic expungement. Once a judge approves the names and offenses, the records are expunged.

“There is a stigma attached when someone has a mark on their record from difficulty in finding employment,” Herring said during a House Courts of Justice hearing. Criminal records also can impact an individual’s ability to attend college, receive financial aid or find housing, she said. 

Andy Elders, policy director at Justice Forward Virginia and chief public defender for Fairfax County, said expungement helps people re-establish themselves in society. 

“Many people who have criminal convictions on their records, have them as a result of over-policing of communities of color,” Elders said. 

Dana G. Schrad, executive director of Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the proposed changes won’t allow certain employers to access expungement records, including police chiefs who conduct thorough background checks before hiring individuals.

“If these expungement proposals are enacted into law, law enforcement hiring processes will be further compromised,” Schrad said.

Deed’s bill would not require disclosure of expungement. Herring’s  bill will prohibit automatically expunged records from being seen unless applying for law enforcement and certain federal and state positions.

Schrad also said the law change could impact background checks for teachers, child care providers, mental health and social workers.

Though the governor promised sweeping criminal justice reform in January, the newly-elected Democratic majority failed during the regular session to pass bills such as reinstating parole and expungement of records. Deeds’ bill, if passed, would take effect January 2022. Herring’s bill would be phased in and require multiple agencies to sign off on the implementations.

Virginians debate whether COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Though the federal government is asking states to prepare for the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine within months, some Virginians differ on whether the vaccine should be mandatory when it becomes available.

Virginia Freedom Keepers, a nonprofit that advocates for medical freedom, gathered in Richmond this week for a “March Against Mandates,” in protest of the statewide mask mandate, as well as a potential vaccine mandate, in response to COVID-19. The Virginia General Assembly is currently holding a special session to discuss the budget, along with COVID-19 and criminal justice reform measures.

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said in a recent interview with ABC-8 (WRIC-TV), that if he is still Virginia’s acting Health Commissioner when a COVID-19 vaccine is made available, he will make immunization mandatory.

“It is killing people now, we don’t have a treatment for it and if we develop a vaccine that can prevent it from spreading in the community we will save hundreds and hundreds of lives,” Oliver said.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office did not back up the health commissioner’s statement. Northam’s administration told WRIC it had “taken no official policy position on whether or not a COVID-19 vaccine for adults should be mandatory.” Northam’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Capital News Service. According to the Virginia Department of Health press office, when Dr. Oliver spoke in support of a mandate for a future COVID-19 vaccine, he was “sharing his personal opinion as a physician.”

Virginia law currently gives the health commissioner the authority to issue a mandate for a vaccine in the case of an epidemic. The law allows doctors to exempt people from vaccination if their health would be negatively affected. A. E. Dick Howard, a professor of international law at the University of Virginia, says this statute must be read in light of the state constitution, which states the commonwealth’s executive power is vested in the governor, meaning it’s unlikely that Oliver would have the final word.

“This provision is meant to focus both authority and responsibility of the governor. It therefore argues against the splintering of authority in the executive branch,” Howard said in an email.

 The current language exempts those with a note written by a doctor, but two Virginia delegates wanted to exempt people who object to vaccination on religious grounds.

HB 5070, introduced by Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, and HB 5016, introduced by Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, have similar wording. The two bills, which were tabled during the special session, would have eliminated the health commissioner’s authority to enforce a vaccination mandate for people who object due to religious beliefs. 

“I am concerned that there is such a rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, that normal safety and effectiveness testing may be bypassed, leading to the distribution of a vaccine that has not been fully tested,” Cole said in an email. “Who knows what the health consequences of short-circuiting the process may be?”

LaRock did not respond to a request for comment about his bill. Cole said constituents concerned about a mandatory vaccine asked him to introduce HB 5016, and that “religious beliefs” in the bill incorporates any belief system, including secularism. 

“I am old enough to remember the Swine Flu scare more than 40 years ago. President Ford started a program of public vaccinations to protect people from it,” Cole said. “I received the vaccine when I was in college.” 

In 1976, a swine flu outbreak in New Jersey led President Gerald Ford to issue a nationwide immunization program, according to the Los Angeles Times. Of the 40 million Americans who received the vaccine around 500 are suspected to have contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that damages nerve cells and causes paralysis in some cases.

“No one should be forced to take a vaccine. Every vaccine has some health risks associated with it; they may be relatively minor, but they are there,” Cole said. “Vaccines that have been tested and found to be effective and safe should be offered to the public, and I am confident that most people will take advantage of it, including myself.” 

In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states have the authority to regulate for the protection of the public and a community has the right to protect itself against an “epidemic of disease,” regardless of one’s political or religious objections, according to the National Constitution Center. The ruling allowed the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts to fine residents who refused to receive smallpox injections. According to Howard, in the case of a mandatory vaccine, the court ruled that states may create an exemption based on religion but are not obliged to do so.

“Thus, the question of what qualifies as a religious exemption depends on how a statute is drafted and interpreted,” Howard said.

Activists Say Bill Ending Police Stops for Pot Odor Is ‘Small Step’ For Marginalized Communities

Advocates

Members of the group Marijuana Justice at a press conference to support the legalization of marijuana in the commonwealth. Photo by Emma Gauthier/CNS.

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The state Senate approved a bill Friday that would prohibit search and seizures based solely on the odor of marijuana. Activists say this is a small step toward ending adverse enforcement against marginalized communities.

Senate Bill 5029, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, passed with a 21-15 vote. 

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit pushing for the statewide legalization of marijuana, said her group is excited to see the bill move forward.

“This is a small but important step to decriminalizing Black and brown bodies of being targeted by this longtime policing tool, which was really created by politicizing the war on drugs,” Higgs Wise said.

Black people are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia compared to white people, according to 2018 data from the ACLU. Even after marijuana was decriminalized in July, Higgs Wise said police stops initiated on the smell of marijuana continue to adversely affect minority groups.

“The odor of marijuana is something that our undocumented community is anxious about because it’s life or death and separation from their families,” Higgs Wise said.

Higgs Wise said there is still “a long way to go” before demands for full marijuana legalization are met, but right now she wants legislators to focus on ending the enforcement of remaining marijuana-related penalties.

Marijuana decriminalization legislation approved by the General Assembly earlier this year went into effect in July. Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana results in a $25 civil penalty, reduced from a $500 criminal fine and 30 days in jail for having up to half an ounce.

Higgs Wise said true reform goes further; clearing records, releasing people jailed for marijuana offenses and eliminating the $25 fine. 

“All of that has to stop to meet the full demand of legalization and fully, truly decriminalizing marijuana and Black and brown bodies in the eyes of the police,” Higgs Wise said.

Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Dana Schrad said the organization opposes the bill. 

“Enacting this type of legislation allows and promotes smoking of marijuana while operating a motor vehicle, which is a fundamental disregard for maintaining a safe driving environment for motorists,” Schrad said in an email.

Other amendments in the bill reduce certain traffic violations from primary to secondary offenses, which Schrad said could make it difficult for officers to issue citations on the road and creates risks for other drivers.

The bill, and another in the House, reduce other traffic penalties from primary to secondary offenses, such as driving with tinted windows or without a light illuminating the vehicle’s license plate.

Claire Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU Virginia, said police have “gotten comfortable” with using the smell of marijuana as a pretext to stop and frisk.

“Occasionally, they’ll find evidence doing that of some other criminal activity, but many times they don’t,” Gastañaga said. “As a consequence, it provides an excuse for essentially over-policing people who have done nothing wrong.”

Gastañaga said the end of the overcriminalization of Black and brown people will come after legislators legalize marijuana and commit to reinvesting equitably in those communities. A resolution approved by the General Assembly earlier in the year directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study and make recommendations for how the commonwealth should legalize marijuana by 2022.

Gastañaga said SB 5029 sends a strong message to the police and the public.

“This would take [away] that pretextual tool for police stopping people on the street, or for demanding to search a vehicle,” Gastañaga said.

The bill needs approval from the House of Delegates and a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam before it can become law, which would take effect four months after the special session adjourns. 

House Bill 5058 similarly aims to end police searches based on the odor of marijuana. The bill, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, reported Wednesday from the House Courts of Justice committee by a vote of 13-7.

“A disproportionate number of people pulled over for minor traffic offenses tend to be people of color,” Hope said during the committee meeting on Wednesday. “This is a contributor to the higher incarceration rate among minorities.”

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said during Wednesday’s meeting that when people feel they are being targeted by the police, they’re less likely to report crimes or act as witnesses in prosecutions. He said ending such traffic stops is necessary to reform the criminal justice system and make communities safer. 

“Reforming our criminal justice system means bringing back legitimacy to it,” Descano said.

Bill to establish mental health alert system reports out of House committee

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill that could reshape how law enforcement responds when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis reported out of the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday by a vote of 13-9.

House Bill 5043, introduced by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would create teams of mental health service providers, peer recovery specialists and law enforcement to help individuals in a crisis situation. Formally dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or MARCUS, alert system, the proposal is in response to ongoing demands of protesters in Richmond.

The proposed system is named after Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer in 2018 while unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Out of that, his family, a wealth and host of community advocates and stakeholders came together and really started developing what’s known as the MARCUS alert system, which this bill hopefully will create,” Bourne said during the virtual committee meeting.

The bill would require the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and the Department of Criminal Justice Services to work together to create evidence-based training programs for the care teams so that they know how, Bourne said, “to effectively address, mitigate and de-escalate these situations.”

Bourne hopes the law will ensure that people who are experiencing mental health crises are met with the appropriate resources “and not just being locked up.”

“A mental health professional is going to absolutely take the lead in these situations,” Bourne said. “In lots of cases, the mere presence or sight of a uniform or police vehicle can further exacerbate or further amplify the mental health crisis.”

Princess Blanding, sister of Peters, commended Bourne and his team for spearheading the bill’s progress in the House. She called today’s committee meeting a partial victory, adding “it’s not done yet.”

“We’re very thankful for the work that Del. Jeff Bourne has been doing, and it’s not over,” Blanding said. “He knows he still has a lot of work ahead of him, and he’s up for it. He’s up for that fight.”

During the meeting, Blanding urged the delegates to support the bill and said her brother “absolutely deserved help, not death” on the day of his fatal shooting.

“When a person’s kidneys stop functioning properly, they receive dialysis if needed,” Blanding said. “When a person’s heart stops functioning properly, they receive bypass surgery if needed. But the brain is the only major organ that, when it stops functioning properly, we demonize, we incarcerate, and in the case of so many Black people, death is the final answer.”

Blanding has spoken at multiple demonstrations in Richmond since protests sparked by the death of George Floyd began in late May, demanding the city fully fund the alert system as well as establish a civilian review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Citing the personal experience of a family member, Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, expressed concern for situations when a victim is endangered by someone experiencing a mental health crisis. She said she supports Bourne’s bill “in concept” but struggles with it from a legal perspective regarding who would respond first in a situation when someone might be harmed.

Bourne said law enforcement have “an absolute, overarching duty to protect people,” and that protection of any victims would necessitate police to respond first, but the mental health team would also be there to address the crisis. Coyner ultimately voted against the bill.

Republican delegates expressed concern over how to fund a statewide system, which will be determined when the bill is before the House Appropriations Committee.

“I’d like for us to think about what we could do to spend this money within our police departments to have somebody there with them that has the ability to be plainclothed and to do this, versus trying to organize different people from different parts,” said Del. Matt Fariss, R-Rustburg.

Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, spoke during the committee meeting. He said although his organization was not involved with putting forward the legislation, he “fully supports” the goals listed in the bill.

“I think this is an incredible, significant step forward in really addressing the mental health needs of our community,” Cruser said.

Senate Bill 5038, introduced by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, also seeks to establish a similar alert system. It has been rereferred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations committee.

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