General Assembly

Lawmakers amend bill banning guns in state buildings, Capitol Square

By Christina Amano Dolan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia legislators recently accepted the governor’s substitute to a bill banning firearms on and near Capitol Square, as well as in state buildings. Lawmakers voted last year to ban firearms from the state Capitol. 

Senate Bill 1381, introduced by Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, will make it a Class 1 misdemeanor for a person to possess or transport a firearm or explosive material within Capitol Square and the surrounding area or buildings owned or leased by the commonwealth. Any person convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor may face a sentence of up to 12 months in jail, a fine up to $2,500, or both.

Current and retired law enforcement officers, active military personnel and others performing official duties are exempted from the restrictions.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s recommendation requested further protection for magistrates. The measure originally allowed magistrates to carry firearms in courthouses, but the substitute now includes magistrates on duty working outside of courthouses and in other government buildings. The Office of the Executive Secretary requested the amendment. 

“They are on duty in various locations at all times of day, working on sensitive and sometimes volatile situations,” Ebbin said. “Magistrates are required to accept cash bonds. That requires the magistrate to frequently possess large sums of cash.”

The Senate passed the substitute along party lines, 21-19. The House agreed to the measure mostly along party lines, 52-46.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, sponsored an identical bill that was also amended and passed both chambers. 

Virginia Democrats passed an existing ban on firearms early last year, similarly excluding police officers and other security personnel. The ban prohibits guns inside the state Capitol and the General Assembly’s adjacent office building but does not extend to Capitol grounds. 

The ban will now include Capitol Square and the area bounded by the four roads in each direction. It also includes the sidewalks of Bank Street extending from 50 feet west of the Pocahontas Building entrance to 50 feet east of the Capitol building entrance.

Ebbin said during a February Senate floor hearing that the bill is in the interest of public safety. There was a “close call” incident last year, Ebbin said, when FBI agents arrested three men on firearms charges. Federal officials were concerned the men were headed to Richmond to attend an annual gun-rights rally, people familiar with the investigation told The Washington Post at the time. Northam had declared a state of emergency ahead of the rally, citing “credible threats of violence surrounding the event.”

Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the measure is about politics, not public safety. The VCDL is a nonprofit organization that advocates for Second Amendment rights. 

Van Cleave said Capitol Police protect legislators, so a weapons ban is unnecessary. 

“They don’t like gun owners exercising their First Amendment rights nor their Second Amendment rights,” Van Cleave said. “These efforts are more to shut us up than anything else.” 

Van Cleave’s organization helped organize a gun rally last January with over 22,000 gun-rights supporters. The organization called for thousands of its armed supporters to gather on Capitol grounds to oppose gun control legislation. The event ended without incident. 

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, said in last week’s Senate hearing that she believes the measure is an attack on the Constitution. 

“I will be voting against any bill that has anything to do with restricting law-abiding citizens’ ability to protect themselves,” Chase said. “I don’t even understand why we are introducing legislation that goes against our Constitutional rights.” 

Chase and other Republican legislators voiced concern for the safety of General Assembly employees when the bill was originally before the Senate. They said police cannot enforce the measure. 

“Capitol Police cannot be everywhere, and as great of people they are, we do not properly give them the resources they need to do the job they’ve been asked to do,” Chase said.

Capitol Police and Virginia State Police will “adequately and reasonably” enforce the law, Ebbin stated in a previous email interview.

“The threat of violence and proliferation of firearms in the public square quashes the civil discourse and exchange of ideas we so value in Virginia,” Ebbin stated. 

The new law goes into effect July 1. 

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.

FOIA bill allows some access to criminal investigation records

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill allowing the public access to limited criminal investigation records will go into effect in July, along with a handful of other bills related to government transparency.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, a former television reporter, introduced House Bill 2004. The bill requires files related to non-ongoing criminal investigations be released under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act law. 

“I’d been a journalist for 10 years, and I frequently saw that access to police records was very difficult,” Hurst said. “In denying those records, accountability and transparency were lost.”

Hurst said he hopes the bill will give the public reasonable access to criminal investigation files. 

“It’s good governance once a case is closed to let the public see it,” Hurst said. 

The bill will allow requesters access to files including descriptions of the crime, where and when the crime was committed, the identity of the investigating officer, and a description of any injuries suffered or property stolen. 

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors opposed the bill, Hurst said. Journalists and victim advocates generally supported it, and many crime victims want to see their case files, Hurst said.

The bill will benefit journalists, but they aren’t the main reason Hurst introduced the legislation.

“I didn’t introduce the bill on behalf of journalism,” Hurst said. “I introduced it for the people in the public who care about police accountability, to help victims get closure, and to help victims of wrongful incarceration, so we can try to achieve justice in those cases.”

A public body, such as a law enforcement agency, will have longer to respond to a FOIA request that is related to a non-ongoing criminal investigation. Public bodies can now ask for up to 60 additional days as opposed to a week to provide records, as long as they communicate this to the requester and have a valid reason. 

Hurst introduced a similar bill during the 2020 special session. The bill narrowly passed the House but didn’t advance past subcommittee in the Senate. HB 5090 expanded the scope of records made available to the public and also sought to limit the time frame for categorizing a case as “ongoing.” 

HB 2004 has no time frame behind its definition of an ongoing case. An ongoing case is defined as one that has not been resolved, or in which evidence is still being gathered for future criminal cases. 

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said her organization supported HB 2004.

“It’s not everything we wanted, by a long shot, but it’s a bill that moves us away from rejecting requests for records as a matter of policy,” Rhyne said.

The legislation only pertains to closed investigations, so it will be more useful for investigative reporters writing long-term stories than for breaking news reporters, Rhyne said. 

“This bill is aimed at at least getting the police to open up the file, look through it, and determine which parts of it can be withheld with justifications,” Rhyne said. “In the past, reporters would just be told that this material is exempt.”

Rhyne said the bill might also benefit the families of crime victims.

“The family members of both the defendants and the victims, and victims and defendants themselves, will be able to take control of their own narrative,” Rhyne said. “During the legislative session, we had family members of two people killed in Virginia Beach who said: ‘We want to be able to see this, to see evidence from the investigation of what took our loved ones from us.’”

Legislators introduced more than 40 bills during the 2021 Virginia General Assembly sessions that would have impacted the FOIA, according to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. The governor also signed two other FOIA-related bills, Senate Bill 1271 and HB 1931, that apply to electronic meetings. Many government meetings have been held over Zoom and other video conferencing platforms during the pandemic. 

SB 1271 allows public bodies to meet electronically if a locality declares a state of emergency. Electronic meetings only were allowed previously if the governor declared a state of emergency. The bill also requires officials to allow the public to attend and comment at the meetings. Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, introduced the bill.

“It encourages videoconferencing, but doesn’t require it, in case small localities or public bodies don’t have broadband or funds to be able to do video,” stated Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association.

HB 1931 allows members of public bodies to meet electronically if a member has to take care of a relative with a medical condition and cannot attend an in-person meeting. Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, introduced the bill.

“This bill was put forward to make it easier for members of public bodies to attend meetings—at any time, not just during a pandemic—by electronic means,” Edwards stated.

HB 2025, introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, would exempt government email distribution lists from being automatically disclosed under the FOIA law. Under current law members of the public have to “opt-out” to not have their personal information disclosed when they sign up for government email lists. The new law requires members of the public and government officials to “opt-in” to have their information publicly disclosed. FOIA advocates wanted the “opt-in” provision taken out of the bill, saying it contradicts public records policy and could bleed into other potential exemptions.

The bills take effect July 1.

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.

Marijuana possession and cultivation could be legal by July

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam amended legislation to accelerate the legalization of marijuana possession and home cultivation in the state to July as opposed to 2024.

“Virginia will become the 16th state to legalize marijuana—and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health and social justice,” Northam stated in a release.

The governor proposed changes to House Bill 2312 and Senate Bill 1406, which passed earlier this year during the Virginia General Assembly’s special session. The bills legalized marijuana possession and sales by Jan. 1, 2024, but marijuana legalization advocates and Democratic lawmakers lobbied to push up the date for possession. 

“This is an historic milestone for racial justice and civil rights, following years of campaigning from advocates and community groups and a strong push by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus,” the group Marijuana Justice stated in a press release. 

Marijuana Justice seeks to legalize the use and possession of marijuana. The group advocates for communities most impacted by the criminalization of drugs with their “legalize it right” campaign.

The bills allow adults 21 years of age or older to legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana if they don’t intend to distribute the substance. Virginia decriminalized marijuana last year and reduced possession penalties to a $25 civil penalty and no jail time for amounts up to an ounce. In the past, possessing up to half an ounce could lead to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. 

Individuals can cultivate up to four cannabis plants without legal repercussion, with punishments ranging from misdemeanors to jail time if over the limit. The governor’s amendments would allow households to grow up to four plants beginning July 1. The plants would need to be labeled with identification information, out of sight from public view, and out of range of people under the age of 21.

Legislators will review the governor’s proposals during the General Assembly’s reconvened session on April 7, according to Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, one of more than two dozen legislators who sponsored the House bill. 

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, said legalizing simple marijuana possession now rather than later is important for racial justice. 

“Waiting until 2024 to legalize simple possession and therefore stop the desperate policing is allowing this continued bias enforcement against Black Virginians to continue for three years,” Wise said. 

Accelerating the legislative timeline is key, Kory said. 

“The figures show that it is much more common for a Black or Brown person to be charged with possession,” Kory said. 

A state study released last year found that from 2010 to 2019 the average arrest rate of Black Virginians for marijuana possession was more than three times higher than that of white residents for the same crime—6.3 per 1,000 Black individuals and 1.8 per white people. This is despite the fact that Black Virginians use marijuana at similar rates as white residents. The conviction rate was also higher for Black individuals. Northam stated that people of color were still disproportionately cited for possession even after marijuana was decriminalized.

The original legislation established the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority as the regulatory structure for the manufacture and retail sale of marijuana and marijuana products. 

The governor’s amendments would allow the authority to revoke a company’s business license if it interfered with union organizing efforts; failed to pay a prevailing wage as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor; or classified more than 10% of employees as independent contractors.

Lawmakers grappled with the dangers of juvenile use of marijuana, Kory said, and the impact of use on developing brains. 

Marijuana Justice wants to remove the delinquency charge that designates marijuana possession a crime, not a civil penalty, if committed by someone underage. The penalty is still up to $25. 

“Instead of punishment, young people should be evaluated for appropriate services that address the root causes of their usage,” Marijuana Justice stated.

The amendments would fund a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana. The changes also would train law enforcement officers to recognize and prevent drugged driving. Northam stated that his amendments include “explicit language directing ongoing support for public health education.”

The bill established a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board tasked with providing youth mentoring programs to marginalized youth and those in foster care, as well as providing scholarships to children who have been negatively impacted by marijuana in their family or community. 

The current expungement of marijuana-related crimes is set for July 1, 2025. Northam’s new amendments call for marijuana-related criminal records to be expunged and sealed “as soon as state agencies are able” and to “simplify the criteria” for when records can be sealed. This will allow individuals convicted with marijuana offenses to be resentenced, according to the new amendment.

The bills originally passed along party lines. No Republicans voted for either bill, and several Democrats in the House did not vote on either measure. Sens. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, and Jill Vogel, R-Warrenton, stated that the governor’s amendments helped assuage their original concerns.

The conservative, faith-based organization The Family Foundation told supporters Thursday to contact their representatives and urge them to vote against the accelerated timeline. 

The organization stated that violent and nonviolent crime rates have increased in states that have legalized marijuana, citing an opinion piece from a police defense group.

“It’s always been about generating more tax revenue to finance the ever-expanding state bureaucracy, creating massive fortunes for those who would use marijuana (like gambling) to prey on our most vulnerable citizens, and catering to a generation increasingly void of moral standards,” stated Victoria Cobb, the foundation’s president.

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.

Lawmakers amend Virginia Human Rights Act; kill workplace harassment bills

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed several bills this session expanding employment protections for people with disabilities and domestic workers but killed a pair of workplace harassment bills.

Five bills were introduced during the 2021 session to amend the Virginia Human Rights Act. Three passed the General Assembly. The Virginia Human Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, among other groups. Virginia last year became the first Southern state to pass sweeping anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community through the Virginia Values Act.

House Bill 1848 extends employment discrimination protection to people with disabilities. The legislation unanimously passed both chambers and Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed the bill into law.

“I am very happy that the bill has widespread support,” stated chief patron Del. Mark D. Sickles, D-Fairfax, in a press release. “I can’t thank our advocates enough, and am grateful for the leadership in Attorney General Mark Herring’s office and for the guidance of the disAbility Law Center.”

Workers with disabilities

 Employers with five or more employees must make reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities unless the employer can demonstrate such accommodations would place an “undue hardship” on the employer. Current federal law prohibits discrimination under the basis of disability for employers with 15 or more employees.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Springfield, said during a House subcommittee hearing that in 2019 the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was twice as high as those without disabilities.

“People who have disabilities, who are able to and want to work, I think we should try to help them be part of the workforce,” Tran said.

A person who claims they were denied reasonable accommodation must file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. They would need to exhaust all administrative processes before pursuing a lawsuit.

Colleen Miller, executive director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, an advocacy organization, said the bill’s passage is “an important development for Virginians with disabilities who are in the workforce and wish to be fully employed.”

Domestic workers’ rights

A trio of bills centered on domestic workers’ rights, dubbed the Virginia Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, were introduced in both chambers this year. Last year, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill guaranteeing minimum wage to domestic workers. 

The bills’ patrons highlighted the impact of excluding domestic workers from employment laws, which they said are bound to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow-era laws. Domestic workers include occupations such as “cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, valets and chauffeurs,” according to the bills. 

A majority of domestic workers are women of color and are three times as likely to live in poverty than other workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, an independent economic research organization. 

Introduced by Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, Senate Bill 1310 extends employment nondiscrimination to employers with one or more domestic workers. It also expands employment protections to domestic workers, including laws regarding the payment of wages. 

“This is a huge step forward to provide stronger workers rights and a safer workplace for 60,000 Virginia domestic workers,” McClellan stated in a press release. “As the daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of domestic workers, I know how essential domestic workers are to the economy and how poorly mistreated they’ve been for generations.” 

McClellan’s bill passed the General Assembly and now heads to the governor’s desk. The House companion bill, HB 1864, from Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, also passed the General Assembly and awaits the governor’s signature.

Lawmakers also passed HB 2032, patroned by Del. Wendy W. Gooditis, D-Clarke. The measure does not amend the state’s Human Rights Act, but it ensures domestic workers are not excluded from employee protection laws. Workers will be able to file complaints regarding workplace safety. Virginia is the 10th state to pass such legislation. Portions of the bill that would include domestic workers under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act were removed.

Failed sexual harassment bills

The two bills amending the Human Rights Act that lawmakers could not advance would have strengthened current workplace sexual harassment laws.

Del. Vivian E. Watts, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 2155 to expand and clarify the definition of workplace harassment and sexual harassment. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 6-7. It was the delegate’s second attempt to pass such protections.

The Senate companion bill, SB 1360, reported out of the Senate Judiciary committee, but was sent back and never picked back up. Patroned by McClellan, the legislation died over concerns on the bill’s absence of employers’ liabilities, especially for small businesses. 

Watts said her bill aimed to provide clearer definition of workplace and sexual harassment. The language in the bill comes from federal court harassment case decisions over a span of two decades, Watts said.

Watts’ measure clarifies that employers would be liable for the supervisors’ actions. She said committee members who voted against the bill failed to understand the guidance of employers’ liability is not currently spelled out in Virginia’s law. Employers may be alleviated from any liability if they can prove they “exercised reasonable care” to prevent and correct harassment or if employees “unreasonably” fail to take actions on “preventable or corrective opportunities” to avoid further harassment, according to the bill.

Both bills defined workplace harassment as an unwelcome conduct based on race, religion, natural origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and more. Sexual harassment includes a sexual advance, a request for sexual favors, or any conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace.

Watts said her bill will remove a glass ceiling and “power differential” that contributes to workplace and sexual harassment.

“If you don't go along (with the workplace harassment), then you will be denied professional opportunities, work opportunities moving forward,” Watts said. “It is a power struggle, and that power struggle makes it a point of leverage.”

Prior to her bill’s death, Watts said there also was confusion over the Senate bill’s language, referring to the committee's dispute on McClellan’s bill.

“There wasn’t a real focus as there needed to be,” Watts said.

McClellan’s bill was met with debate from other lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary committee, such as Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, over the bill’s language. McClellan asked Petersen if he wanted to add an amendment. He said he didn’t. 

“I just want this bill to go away,” Petersen said. 

Petersen questioned if his wife asking men “to move the furniture for her” constituted sexual harassment. Multiple lawmakers said the bill’s language was too broad. 

McClellan, a gubernatorial candidate, is committed to advancing anti-workplace harassment laws, either as a legislator or governor, according to her spokesperson. 

Watts said she will reintroduce her bill next year. She said she will make sure there is an understanding that the bill contains a “sound, legal approach” to employers’ liability. 

“I believe that the majority of the members do believe that this is something that needs to be spelled out to protect employees, and particularly minorities and women,” Watts 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.

Schools can opt for remote learning during inclement weather

By Sarah Elson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers insisted there will still be snow days for public school students, though the General Assembly recently passed legislation allowing unscheduled remote learning during inclement weather. 

“I have heard this bill referred to as ‘the killer of snow day dreams,’” said Alan Seibert, superintendent of Salem City Schools, during a subcommittee meeting. “That’s not the case.” 

Lawmakers passed two identical bills stating school divisions can opt for virtual learning during severe weather conditions and emergency situations that result in the cancellation of in-person classes.

Remote learning or distance education is when the instructor and student are separated by location and do not physically meet. 

“I would like to emphasize that this is not a bill to eliminate snow days but simply provide some flexibility to school systems,” said Del. Joseph McNamara, R-Roanoke, who introduced House Bill 1790. Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, introduced Senate Bill 1132, an identical bill. The bills had strong support in both chambers, though they each moved through the Senate with unanimous support. 

 “As you know this pandemic has made us think outside the box and some benefit has come from this thinking,” said Mark Miear, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in the New River Valley, during the House subcommittee meeting. 

Public schools must offer 180 days or 990 hours of instruction each year or receive a reduction in state aid, according to Virginia law. School districts typically build in extra snow days for inclement weather. If those days are used up, schools must make up days to meet the required instruction time. The bills also allow schools to make up missed instruction by scheduling a remote learning day.

Both bills state that no school division can use more than 10 unscheduled remote learning days in a school year unless the superintendent of public instruction grants an extension. 

 “I'm really glad that the state is allowing this type of [learning] to happen in the 21st century, because it'll allow us to be able to have days that actually count toward that 990 hours,” said Max Smith, assistant director of operations at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond.

Miear said unscheduled remote learning days will allow the school district to set an end date for the school year and schedule summer programs. Some districts can miss 17-20 days for inclement weather, Miear said. The updated policy will allow for instruction to be “more consistent.”

Moving to online learning during inclement weather will not make up for lost education, Owen Hughes, a permanent substitute teacher at Elmont Elementary School in Ashland, stated in a text message. 

"Remote teaching only truly takes place when there is remote learning,” Hughes stated. “This means that if students are disengaged and not learning, teachers aren't teaching they're just talking and staying busy."

Smith said that it will be easy to implement remote learning days because Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School has been teaching students through virtual learning. The school  provided some students with laptops and hotspots if they needed it.

“Now if we hadn't had an infrastructure in place, it might be really difficult to be able to pull off one of these unscheduled instructional days from the legislation, but we already have the infrastructure in place,” Smith said.

Hughes is concerned some students will not have access to a working internet connection during inclement weather. The General Assembly this session funded the expansion of rural broadband internet access, though it will take a while to implement the infrastructure.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, sponsored a related bill. SB 1303 will require both online and in-person learning to become available to students by July 1. The student's parent or guardian would decide on the learning modality. The bill expires August 2022. 

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 10th State to Pass Domestic Worker Protections

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed multiple bills providing protections and benefits for the state’s domestic workers.

 House Bill 2032, introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, extends employee protection laws to domestic service workers that allows them to file complaints regarding workplace safety. The Commission of Labor and Industry would investigate such claims.

Domestic worker is defined as an individual paid either directly or indirectly for services of a household nature performed in or about a private home. This includes jobs such as “companions, cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, valets and chauffeurs.” The bill states that domestic work does not include jobs that are irregular or uncertain. 

This bill will affect around 60,000 workers in Virginia, according to Erica Sklar, a national organizer for Hand In Hand, a national network of employers of domestic workers pushing for better working conditions. Lawmakers said 90% of the workers are women and half are women of color.

“Virginia is the 10th state to pass legislation like this,” Sklar said. “There's also two cities that have passed this legislation, Seattle and Philadelphia.”

Domestic workers were exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlined protections such as a 40-hour maximum workweek and minimum wage requirements. Political scholars say that Southern Democrats joined with Republicans in opposition to the FLSA. A Congressional bill introduced in 2019 sought to repeal the exemption and also expand coverage to domestic workers under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against discrimination in employment.

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director of the advocacy group Care in Action, said she wants people to understand the challenges of being a domestic worker. Care in Action is a nonprofit that advocates for millions of domestic workers in the nation. Domestic workers are excluded from workplace protection policies, which many lawmakers had not previously considered, Rodgers said.

“Sometimes it’s having a new idea or concept introduced and taking a little more time to educate lawmakers,” Rodgers said. “We’ve certainly seen progress along the way.”

The original bill would have covered domestic workers under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act, but that portion of the bill was removed, Rodgers said. She hopes the act will eventually include domestic workers.

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, also introduced a bill this session advocating for domestic workers’ rights. The General Assembly passed HB 1864, which expands the definition of employer in the Virginia Human Rights Act to protect domestic workers from workplace discrimination. The act prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and other factors. 

 Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, carried Senate Bill 1310, which includes domestic workers in employee protection laws, including laws regarding the payment of wages. The bill also extends protection to domestic workers from workplace discrimination.

"These were jobs that were originally done for free under slavery and then were limited jobs available to African American women,” McClellan said when introducing her bill. “As part of Jim Crow they were excluded from minimum wage, workers’ comp, the Human Rights Act, our OSHA laws, our unemployment comp laws—not just here in Virginia, but throughout the South and at the federal level." 

McClellan said she is passionate about fighting for domestic workers’ rights.

“I understand from my own family experience how important domestic work is,” McClellan said. “We trust domestic workers to care for our loved ones in our homes, and their work allows other people to work.”

Opponents of Gooditis’ measure worried over the protocol that allows for a residence to be inspected when a domestic worker files a complaint. Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said before the bill’s passage that he worried “the government will now be able to enter an employer's house without a search warrant if this conference report is agreed to.”

“My concern about this is that now we’re setting up a system where if you have someone who performs childcare in your home or cleans at your home, now the government is going to be able to come in to inspect that residence,” McDougle said.

McClellan said that in order to conduct an inspection officials will need permission from the owners of the residence or workplace. 

“No one would be able to come in without a warrant in the scenario that the senator from Hanover just described,” she said. “Again, there will be no inspections without the consent of the owner, operator of the workplace.”

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.

Lawmakers Pass COVID-19 Workers’ Compensation Bills

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed multiple bills allowing health care workers and first responders to receive workers’ compensation benefits if they are disabled or die due to COVID-19.

“We did it!” Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, said in a Twitter post. “Health care heroes who got COVID on the job will get the retroactive workers comp presumption they deserve!”

Hurst’s House Bill 1985 expanded workers’ compensation benefits for health care workers “directly involved in diagnosing or treating persons known or suspected to have COVID-19,” including doctors and nurses. The bill provides coverage from March 12, 2020 until Dec. 31, 2021. 

The health care worker must have been treated for COVID-19 symptoms and been diagnosed by a medical provider to qualify for compensation before July 1, 2020. The individual must have received medical treatment and a positive COVID-19 test to be eligible for compensation after July 1, 2020. 

The bill also said health care workers who refuse or fail to get vaccinated for COVID-19 will not be eligible for workers’ compensation. The aforementioned rule doesn't apply if a physician determines vaccination will risk the worker’s health. 

“This is how we honor our brave health care heroes that put themselves in harm’s way to treat those infected with this horrible virus,” Hurst said in a press release. “They sacrifice for us and deserve our utmost praise and admiration, but they also deserve our help.”

There were concerns about the bill’s costs, according to Hurst. The Senate tried to remove the bill’s retroactive clause, but the bill passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support following negotiations. 

The Virginia Nurses Association said the bill will make it easier for nurses to access benefits.

“Unfortunately, too many Virginia nurses caught COVID-19 while treating patients,” the association said in a Facebook post. “For those that got very sick, there is no easy way to file for workers’ compensation, and many have suffered not only physically, but financially.” 

Senate Bill 1375 and HB 2207 cover workers’ compensation for first responders who are diagnosed or died from COVID-19 on or after Sept. 1 of last year. The measures include firefighters, police officers, correctional and regional jail officers and emergency medical services workers. The bills require an official diagnosis through a positive COVID-19 test and symptoms of the disease.

The House bill, sponsored by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, originally included a retroactive clause that compensated cases going back to March 2020, but that was taken out of the legislation’s final version.

“We fought tooth and nail to provide our first responders - the real heroes of the pandemic - coverage under workers' compensation for COVID and we got it done,” Jones said in a Twitter post. 

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 Restaurants Grapple with Plastic Foam Container Ban

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.

After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.

“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”

Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. Remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation. 

Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having Styrofoam in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”

This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packaging, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.

Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.

“The places that give me these Styrofoam containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lost more than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.

Dominic Pham, owner of Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives. 

Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.

Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.

The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversed or delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report. 

The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 report in the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegrades slowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.

MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.

“I think that it's the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment and partnership manager. 

DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.

“If it's a statewide change, that's kind of the best case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it's driving demand for the product up and costs down.” 

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers. 

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.

Legislation hopes to expand broadband access for low-income students

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in an effort to expand broadband internet access to low-income students across the commonwealth. 

Senate Bill 1225, proposed by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, authorizes school boards to appropriate funds to partner with private companies for the purpose of implementing and subsidizing broadband internet access for low-income and at-risk students. 

“Distance learning during the pandemic has left these students struggling not just with homework but with classwork and lessons as well,” Boysko said before a House panel.

The reduced rate broadband would be eligible for students who qualify for child nutrition programs and other programs that are recognized by the school board as a measure to identify at-risk students. That means programs that are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as the schools’ breakfast, lunch and after school snack programs.

These broadband programs already exist, but Boysko said the bill clarifies that school boards can enter into partnerships with private broadband companies and permits the companies to promote the service. Boysko said there are nearly 600,000 students who qualify for those supplemental programs, though 215,000 people are currently utilizing them.

One plan offered to qualifying families is $9.95 a month, according to a Comcast representative who spoke in favor of the bill. 

Phillip Lovell, vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education said students without access to reliable technology are experiencing the brunt of the pandemics’ drawbacks.

 “If you don't have high-speed home Internet, and if you don't have a device, then you are in a world of hurt,” Lovell said. 

More than 20% of households in Virginia lack high-speed internet, according to a recent analysis by Future Ready Schools, a research project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national nonprofit committed to improving education outcomes. This translates to almost 394,000 children without an efficient network to complete their instruction. The same organization reports that over 200,000 students are without internet in households that earn below $50,000 annually. Future Ready Schools also found that 8% of Virginia households have no computer devices. This impacts over 140,000 students. 

Lovell said access to a cell phone instead of a computer is an insufficient way of learning. He challenged adversaries to complete work without access to a desktop.

“They should try to write a five-page research paper on any topic they would like … and try to do it on their cell phone,” Lovell said.

Disparities in academic performance can be seen within different races, income levels, English-language proficiency, learning disabilities and sex, according to Education Week, a news organization devoted to education news. 

Lower-income students are less likely to have access to a quality remote learning environment; devices that they do not need to share; high-speed broadband internet; and parental supervision during school hours, according to Mckinsey and Co., a consulting firm to governments and organizations.

Rural students are also suffering from a lack of broadband internet access.

Keith Perrigan, president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, said during a Fund Our Schools virtual rally earlier in the week that access to broadband internet is perhaps the biggest equity issue faced by the state’s rural students. Fund Our Schools is a coalition of education advocates that work to increase Virginia public schools funding.

“Students are driving 10, 12, 15 miles to get to their nearest Dollar General who will allow them to sit in the parking lot and tap onto the Wi-Fi,” Perrigan said. “And you have students in other parts of the state that sit in their living room and have access to the internet at their disposal all the time.” 

Boysko said her bill is not going to solve the problem of rural broadband infrastructure. Other bills will expand access to infrastructure building. She said the bill is primarily for urban and suburban areas where families can’t afford to pay for the internet but there’s existing broadband infrastructure in place.

Both the House and Senate budget bills propose $50 million per year from the general fund for two years for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative. The funds will supplement the construction costs of expanding access to areas that are presently unserved by broadband providers. The Department of Housing and Community Development will work with the Broadband Advisory Council to designate unserved areas that require funds. 

Boysko also sponsored SB1413 that will make permanent a pilot program that permits some electric utility companies to petition the State Corporation Commission to provide broadband capacity to unserved areas of the state.

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.

“There Is No Context”: General Assembly Votes To Remove Byrd Statue

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly has voted to remove the statue of former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square, the area around the Virginia State Capitol.

House Bill 2208, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, instructs the Department of General Services to place the statue in storage until the General Assembly chooses its final location. The bill passed the House in late January on a 63-34 vote, while the Senate approved the measure Tuesday on a 36-3 vote.

Byrd served as state governor from 1926 to 1930 and U.S. senator from 1933 to 1965. His massive resistance campaign pushed for Southern states to reject the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, cutting off state funding and closing schools that tried to integrate.

Jones called the statue a reminder of the institutional racism in Virginia during the bill’s first committee hearings. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, echoed Jones’ sentiments during the bill’s final reading on the Senate floor.

“When I was an intern working for the first African American governor and walked past that statue every day, I knew I was his worst nightmare,” McClellan said. “I feel it every time I walk past it.”

McClellan spoke of the pain African Americans have endured in Virginia due to Byrd’s disenfranchisement of Black voters and the dehumanization that Byrd cast on them.

“There is no context that could be placed on a statue on Capitol Square, the ultimate public park with public art, that could erase the pain that Harry Byrd and his legacy invokes for African American Virginians,” McClellan said.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Warrenton, gave a speech on the Senate floor portraying Byrd as a humble, industrious man who worked in the apple business, saved a local newspaper and improved Virginia’s highway infrastructure. Vogel described Byrd’s “massive resistance” campaign against school integration in the 1950s as a stain on an otherwise remarkable career.

“That is a great stain on his career and a great embarrassment,” Vogel said. “But he was a man of a certain time in a certain era.”

Vogel asked the senators to “look at the whole man and consider that we are each a sum of all our parts, the good and the bad.”

Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, pushed back on Vogel’s request, saying probably 100,000 students if not more were kept out of school for years due to Byrd’s push for segregation.

“I just don’t see how we can overlook the fact that all of these children … were kept out of school for four years,” Saslaw said. “I think that we should not be honoring people to that degree in Capitol Square.”

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, introduced a bill last year to remove Byrd’s statue. Walker later pushed for his bill to be removed.

Walker voted against HB 2208 during its final reading in the House on Jan. 27.

The push to remove statues of Confederate leaders accelerated after protests began following the death of George Floyd last May. Floyd died in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer who has been charged with second-degree murder.

The Department of General Services estimated the statue’s removal will cost approximately $250,000, according to the bill’s impact statement. Storage costs are estimated at $7,000 per year until the final home of the statue is determined.

Byrd’s statue was erected in Richmond’s Capitol Square in 1976 after his death in 1966. The bipartisan vote to remove it comes on the eve of the 65th anniversary of Byrd’s massive resistance campaign, according to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Vogel were the only senators to vote against the bill.

Rita Davis, council to Gov. Ralph Northam, spoke of Northam’s support for the bill during committee hearings. Northam is expected to sign the bill.

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.

Lawmakers Pass Bills to Collect Data on Pretrial Detention

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation this week that lawmakers said will increase transparency and equity in the judicial system, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.

The bills, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will create a centralized, publicly-accessible data collection system on pretrial detention. Senate Bill 1391 and House Bill 2110 both passed Thursday.

Pretrial detention is the practice of holding a defendant in jail until trial. It is used, officials say, to guarantee the defendant appears in court and to ensure public safety. The compiled pretrial data would be distributed annually by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, or VCSC. 

The bills require the VCSC to compile and share data on the sex, age, race and zip code of an individual charged with a crime. The individual’s criminal background will also be included in the report without their name. No case identifying information could be accessed through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or made publicly available, per the bills.

Maisie Osteen, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the bills are a tremendous opportunity to understand release conditions like bond or pretrial services. She said they also illuminate trends in the racial, gender and economic demographics of people in jail. 

“This is the heart of transparency,” Osteen said. “It's opening up the actual raw data to the public in a downloadable, accessible format.” In Virginia, 46% of the total jail population is being held pretrial, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Lucas and Herring drafted the bills at the Virginia State Crime Commission's recommendation. The lawmakers used data from the commission’s 2017 Pretrial Data Project, which sought to study the different types of release mechanisms involved in pretrial services, such as bond or pretrial holdings. Of the individuals included in the data, 40% were Black, though this group makes up 20% of the commonwealth’s total population. 

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, an executive partner at the Pretrial Justice Institute, said the commission’s new role was the first step in creating a more equitable Virginia. The institute provides information on current criminal justice issues and works to reform pretrial policies.

“The point of the bill is for advocates to take what they already knew was true about the way the system operates in terms of its disproportionate impact on communities of color,” Burdeen said. “And surely, its disproportionate impact on poor Virginians of all races.”

Being in jail before trial can drastically destabilize the accused and their families, according to a 2020 National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) study. The research found that as a result of pretrial detention people were more likely to lose connections to employment, housing and family. 

Osteen said most people are held pretrial because they can’t make bail and are more likely to have non salaried employment. She said they stand a greater chance of losing employment after a few days of being unable to report to work. This financial instability can then lead to a loss of housing or loss of children.

The NLADA study also found that those held in pretrial detention are more likely to be rearrested for new crimes, and more likely to have longer prison sentences. 

Osteen said that when a judge sees a defendant who “looks like a criminal” it can lead to harsher sentencing.

“I've heard judges say, honestly, ‘It's just easier to send somebody to prison if they show up in a prison or jail outfit, then I already know they've been plucked from their lives,’” Osteen said.

She said the judges are less likely to feel as if sentencing is the destabilization factor because it has already happened to the defendant.

Osteen said she is excited by the potential impact data collection will have on understanding the commonwealth’s justice system. She wishes the legislation included information about why judges decide to detain a defendant or not, a standard not currently required, Osteen said.

According to the VCSC, this legislation will cause a significant increase in the agency’s workload. The agency expects it will need additional funding to finance two new salaried positions.

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 lawmakers advance Consumer Data Protection Act

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly is advancing legislation that allows Virginia consumers more protection with their online data, though opponents say the measure does not include the ability for people to file private lawsuits against companies that breach the proposed law.

The measure is known as the Consumer Data Protection Act in both chambers of the state legislature. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, passed the House 89-9 on Thursday. The House version, sponsored by Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, is awaiting a final vote but was passed by for the day Thursday.

“The consumers should have the right to know what is being collected about them,” Hayes said when introducing the bill.

The data protection act allows consumers to retrieve a copy of their online data, amend or delete this data and opt out of allowing large businesses to sell the data. 

Hayes wants businesses to responsibly handle consumer information. 

“The bottom line is, we want the controllers to know what their role is when it comes to the protection of individual’s data,” Hayes said during a House committee meeting. “We believe that no matter who you are as an organization, you need to be responsible when it comes to handling of data of consumers.”

The bills apply to businesses that control or process personal data of at least 100,000 consumers per year. It also impacts businesses that handle data of at least 25,000 consumers per year and make more than half of their gross revenue from selling personal data. The businesses must be located in Virginia or serve Virginians. 

Under the Consumer Data Protection Act, the attorney general’s office would handle the enforcement of this legislation. The office would handle anything from consumer complaints to the enforcement of fines. 

“The attorney general’s office will have the depth and breadth, experience, the investigative tools necessary to know and to follow trends of companies and to make sure that they bring the muscle of that office to the table,” Hayes said.

Microsoft’s Senior Director of Public Policy Ryan Harkins testified in favor of the proposed law. 

“We’ve seen dramatic changes in technology over the past couple of decades and U.S. law has failed to keep pace,” Harkins said. “It’s fallen behind much of the rest of the world and failed to address growing challenges of privacy.” 

Harkins said that Microsoft has advocated for data protection laws since 2005. He said that the public has lost trust in technology, and passing comprehensive data protection legislation can help win the public’s trust back.

Harkins said that the measure stands alongside leading data protection legislation such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act and aspects of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

“In some respects, it would go further and provide the most comprehensive and robust privacy laws in the United States,” Harkins said.

Attorney Mark Dix spoke in opposition of the bill on behalf of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. He said the measure would hurt Virginians because it is “going to close the courthouse doors.”

“It provides no cause of action whatsoever for the consumer, the person who is actually hurt,” Dix said. “It provides no remedy whatsoever for the consumer.”

Dix argued that having the attorney general’s office handle the enforcement of this legislation limits the consumer.Using a hypothetical scenario, Dix asked what would happen to Virginians if there was an administration change and the Attorney General did not prioritize data protection.

The Consumer Data Protection Act would take effect in January 2023. Marsden told a Senate subcommittee that allows time to “deal and field any other tweaks to the bill or difficulties that someone figures out.”

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.

Lawmakers kill bill calling for transparency in redistricting commission

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Senate killed a House proposal to expand access to the commonwealth’s new redistricting commission and help make the process more transparent and democratic. 

House Bill 2082, patroned by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, would have required the redistricting commission meetings to be advertised and accessible to the public. The commission will draw the commonwealth’s electoral districts every 10 years. The General Assembly previously drew the districts.

The bill was passed by indefinitely in the Senate Privileges and Elections committee after passing the House with a 55-41 vote. 

“During the debates on the commission, I kept saying ‘There’s no transparency here, there’s no transparency,’” Levine said. “Well, there wasn’t, and there isn’t. Without my legislation, the commission can meet in a dark room.”

The law already requires the commission to allow public comment at meetings, but Levine’s bill called for the meetings to be more widely advertised and in multiple languages. 

Levine said that one of the most important parts of the bill is that it allowed people to comment on the district maps after they are drawn, not just before. The bill required that maps be posted on the commission’s website and three public comment periods be held prior to voting.

People are more likely to have opinions once they see the practical impact of a district map, he said.

“You might not care before, and then you look at the map and they’ve split your community right down the middle,” Levine said. 

 The bill also would have prohibited the Supreme Court of Virginia, which has the authority to decide districts if the commission can’t come to an agreement, from meeting in private. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission has been meeting virtually. Eight legislators and eight private citizens serve on the commission, split evenly between the two major political parties. For a map to be approved, 15 of the members would have to vote yes, Levine said. If two or more commission members voted against the map, the decision would go to the Supreme Court, according to Levine. The Court also becomes involved if the state legislature rejects the maps.

Levine said that the redistricting court meetings should be publicly accessible, because the Supreme Court would be acting like a legislature.

“I would’ve shined a bright light on the process, and it would have made the commission better,” Levine said. 

Virginians voted to establish the commission during a ballot measure in the November general election, where it won with 66% of the vote.

“It doesn’t make it perfect,” Levine said. “I recognize that Virginians voted for it, but I want to make it better.”

Opponents of Levine’s bill believed that the Supreme Court should have the right to meet privately. Republican members of the Voting Rights subcommittee abstained from voting on the bill, then voted against the substitute version of the bill. The vote that killed the bill in the Senate, however, had both Democrats and Republicans voting against it. 

During the House Privileges and Elections committee meeting on Feb. 3, opponents of the bill expressed concerns about whether it would go into effect in a timely manner, as well as concerns about whether the Supreme Court should be able to meet in private.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, asked whether the bill would have an impact on the 2021 district maps, because it would not have gone into effect until July 1. A public commenter asked whether the bill raised “constitutional issues” because it prevents the Supreme Court from deliberating in private. 

“Both opponents and supporters of the bill agree that we need transparency,” Levine said during the meeting.

Members of several advocacy groups spoke in support of the bill during the meeting, including redistricting coordinator Erin Corbett of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports left-of-center causes.

“We believe that the newly-developed redistricting commission should work to be accessible and transparent,” Corbett said. “With this legislation, we can better ensure language access, public comment, and inclusivity as we move through the process of redistricting in Virginia.”

A provision in the bill, which was taken out during subcommittee hearings, would not have counted prisoners from outside of the commonwealth as Virginia residents. Virginians who are imprisoned in Virginia have been counted as residents of their home districts, but Levine’s attempt to extend this to non-Virginians imprisoned in Virginia was unsuccessful. 

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 General Assembly advances bill to modernize HIV laws

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly advanced a bill this week that lawmakers say will modernize Virginia’s current HIV laws. The amended measure has passed both chambers, but lawmakers must now accept or work out differences in the bill. 

Senate Bill 1138, introduced by Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, also removes a law that prohibits the donation of blood and organs by people with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A 21-17 vote along party lines pushed the bill out of the Senate earlier this month. The House of Delegates passed the bill Friday in a 56-44 vote. 

The bill repeals a law that makes it a felony for HIV-positive people to sell or donate blood, body fluids, organs and tissues. Donors must be in compliance with the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act. This state legislation does not apply to national organizations such as the American Red Cross. The organization implements FDA guidelines that require men who have sex with men to defer from sexual intercourse for three months before donating blood. 

The measure also removes HIV, AIDS, syphilis and hepatitis B from the list of infectious biological substances under the current infected sexual battery law, opting to use the language “sexually transmitted infection.” The crime is punishable by a Class 6 felony, which carries a punishment of no more than five years in prison or a $2,500 fine. In 2019 and 2020, three offenders were convicted of such crimes, according to data provided in the impact statement by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. The Senate voted to lower the penalty from a Class 6 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor. 

Opponents of the bill spoke against reducing the penalty for such crimes. The House vote Friday included an amendment to keep the Class 6 felony punishment.

The bill adds language that HIV will not be included in the current statute as an infectious biological substance. It is a Class 5 felony to cause malicious injury by means of an infectious biological substance. The offense is punishable by five to 30 years in prison. 

McClellan said current HIV laws put in place during the 1980s AIDS epidemic have proven ineffective from a public health perspective. She said they are counterproductive and were implemented years ago tof receive federal funding.

“There are other laws that could be used to criminalize intentionally infecting someone with anything,” McClellan said. “There’s no need to specifically target and single out for HIV-positive status.”

LGBTQ and HIV advocacy groups hope the bill will end the stigma attached to HIV-positive people and also LGBTQ members who are not HIV positive.

The bill has the support of organizations such as the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Equality Virginia, the Zero Project, Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia, or ECHO VA, and the Positive Women’s Network - USA. 

Deirdre Johnson, co-founder of the ECHO VA Coalition, said the bill is a step in the right direction for ending the stigma against those with HIV. 

“One of the biggest things with the stigma has been the fear of knowing that you could be criminalized for having HIV, period, and then you know, of course, that deters people from getting tested,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that HIV stigma and criminalization have a profound effect on people of color and other marginalized communities who already experience health care inequity and mistrust. 

“Virginia is for lovers and I really want us to encompass that slogan, including people living with HIV and a perceived risk for HIV,” Johnson said

Cedric Pulliam, co-founder of ECHO VA, said lawmakers in the 1980s and 1990s saw HIV as something the public needed to be protected from when it was and continues to be a public health concern. There is now a call for state legislators around the country to change HIV criminalization laws.

Pulliam said that national agencies are reaching out to state legislators to help undo prior initiatives that limit HIV prevention, treatment and services. 

“We need your help from the state to really, basically right this wrong that we created decades ago,” Pulliam said of the agency outreach.

Pulliam called the move to decriminalize health status a “liberation” for those living with HIV because they would no longer have a target on their back. He also said that laws specifically target people with HIV. In Virginia, syphilis and hepatitis also are criminalized but other chronic illnesses and diseases are not, he said.

Virginia is currently one of 37 states as of 2020 that have HIV discriminatory laws, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If the federal government has really been calling for states to make this change, it's time for Virginia to be one of the next and not be, you know, the last,” Pulliam 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 Moves Closer to Ban Plastic Foam Containers

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.

After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.

“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”

Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. Remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation.

Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having (polystyrene) in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”

This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packaging, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.

Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.

“The places that give me these (polystyrene) containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lostmore than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.

Dominic Pham, owner of Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives.

Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.

Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.

The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversedor delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report.

The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 reportin the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegradesslowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.

MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.

“I think that it's the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment and partnership manager.

DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.

“If it's a statewide change, that's kind of the best case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it's driving demand for the product up and costs down.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers.

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.

Lawmakers kill bill requiring officers render aid, report wrongdoing

By Sarah Elson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A Senate committee recently killed a bill intended to minimize police misconduct and incentivize accountability among law enforcement. 

House Bill 1948, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, required law enforcement officers to report misconduct by fellow officers. Another part of the measure, which some opponents called too subjective, was that on-duty officers provide aid as circumstances objectively permitted to someone suffering a life-threatening condition, or serious bodily injury. 

The bill also expanded the current definition of bias-based profiling, which is prohibited in Virginia, to include gender identity and sexual orientation. Bias-based profiling is when a police officer takes action solely based on an individual’s real or perceived race, age, ethnicity or gender. 

The measure passed the Virginia House of Delegates last month on a 57-42 vote and the Senate Judiciary committee killed the bill this week on a 9-6 vote. Levine introduced a similar bill last year that also failed in the Senate.

“I call HB 1948 my good apple bill because it separates the vast majority of law enforcement that are good apples from the few bad apples that are not,” Levine said when the bill was before the House. 

Dominique Martin, a policy analyst for New Virginia Majority, said before a House panel that the bill would establish a mechanism to create accountability among officers. 

“One of the major themes when discussing long lasting approaches to police reform is the need for change at the institutional level,” Martin said. “One aspect is addressing organizational culture. It incentivizes a more accountable culture amongst law enforcement.”

Vee Lamneck, executive director for Equality Virginia, spoke in favor of the bill.

“LGBT people, especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous LGBT people, are more likely to be victimized by discriminatory police practices,” Lamneck said. “Transgender women are six times more likely to endure police violence and Black transgender women experience even higher rates of being antagonized and criminalized by police.”

HB 1250, also known as The Community Policing Act, took effect on July 1, 2020. The law prohibits police from engaging in bias-based profiling while on duty.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, expressed concern with the part of Levine’s bill that required officers to provide aid to someone with a life threatening injury.

“The concern is that a lot of times in situations where you don't know whether life-saving aid is necessarily required in that instance, the outcome may be that someone is injured more than is immediately recognizable,” Schrad said.

Schrad said the bill was a response to events such as the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in police custody. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second degree murder and will stand trial in March. The three other officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, will stand trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

 “It's the George Floyd response that the officers there did not render aid,” Schrad said.

John Clair, police chief for the Marion Police Department, in Smyth County, agreed with Schrad.

“We're police officers, medical aid should be left to medical professionals,” Clair said. 

The requirement to render aid is not in the state code and though it is a requirement already for many districts, there is a need for consistency across the commonwealth, Levine said.

“I’m confident that the vast majority would do so anyway,” Levine said. “This makes it a matter of policy; it will be taught in training.”

Several bills centered on police reform have died during this General Assembly session. A measure by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, would have established data collection on use of force incidents that would be reported to the superintendent of Virginia State Police. HB 2045 and SB 1440 would have eliminated qualified immunity. The bills would have made it easier for plaintiffs to sue police officers in civil court for depriving the plaintiffs of their constitutional rights. Both bills were struck down within the last two weeks. A similar measure from Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who patroned HB 2045, was also struck down during the 2020 General Assembly special session. 

Schrad said Levine’s bill and the qualified immunity bill would have taken away legal protections and created a strict liability for police officers. Opponents of the qualified immunity bills also said there would be a negative impact on hiring new police recruits.

“These kinds of issues all taken together create such a standard of both strict liability, and no protections for law enforcement officers that we’re really throwing them under the bus,” Schrad said.

Levine said his bill was both modest and large. 

 “It’s large because it really tries to make it clear there is no thin blue line, that the goal of law enforcement is to serve the public first and you should not be covering up bad acts, severe acts of wrongdoing, that’s not technical or minimal, by your fellow officer,” he 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.

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.

 

Virginia lawmakers advance bills eliminating mandatory minimums

By Aaron Royce, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly advanced criminal justice reform measures that would eliminate mandatory minimums in favor of allowing judges more sentencing discretion. 

Senate Bill 1443, introduced by Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, narrowly passed Friday on a 21-17 vote. 

The bill proposes to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences in Virginia for various crimes, including aggravated involuntary manslaughter, child pornography and violating a protective order for abuse victims. The legislation does not include Class 1 felonies such as willful and deliberate murder. 

Lawmakers in support of the bill emphasized that judges should be trusted to deliver the appropriate sentences without utilizing a sentencing policy that they say has been abused. Critics said the bill dismantled the criminal justice policies in place after years of deliberation.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said during the bill’s committee hearing last month that mandatory minimum charges have proliferated like “crazy” during his two decades as an attorney, especially for DUIs. 

“People pay a lot of money to stay out of jail,” Surovell said. 

He added that mandatory minimums force people who have legitimate defenses to plead guilty because the consequences of losing are too great. Surovell also said juries aren’t informed of mandatory minimums before they issue sentencing recommendations. 

Under the Senate bill, crimes such as DUI charges or illegal gun possession by a felon also would have mandatory minimums removed.

The nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program, or WRAP, worries that the bill lessens penalties for egregious drunk drivers. The current bill eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders and those with high blood alcohol concentration. The organization requested the bill be amended, but it was not.

“I don’t know if people really recognize the disproportionate carnage that these two types of drunk drivers are responsible for, both in Virginia and nationally,” WRAP CEO Kurt Erickson said in an interview. He said those examples “are not the standard DUI offenses.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is also opposed to the bill. The organization said shorter sentences won’t adequately punish drunk drivers for their actions. 

Tinsae Gabriel, deputy policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said criminologists have long made it clear that it is the certainty of being caught and punished quickly and not the severity of the mandatory sentence that deters crime. 

“I also want to emphasize that repealing mandatory sentences does not mean people go without accountability,” she said. “What it means is that judges who are selected by the General Assembly and who are informed by guidelines would be able to consider all relevant facts and circumstances about a case before they impose an appropriate sentence, instead of a ‘one size fits all’ punishment.”

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance’s policy director Jonathan Yglesias echoed similar support. Yglesias said mandatory minimums provide “little real safety for victims or true accountability for offenders.”

Yglesias said he thinks the bill is timely also, given that domestic and sexual violence cases have occurred “far more often” since the pandemic. Erickson said, however, that Virginia’s drunk driving fatalities also rose from 249 to 253 last year, even with less people on the roads.

The Senate bill directs the secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security to create a work group composed of lawyers, correction’s officials and other stakeholders to study the feasibility of resentencing persons who previously received a mandatory minimum sentence. The report is due in November. 

The House advanced its version Friday with less debate on a 58-42 vote. Introduced by Del. Michael P. Mullin, D-Newport News, House Bill 2331 also eliminates mandatory minimums for many crimes. 

The bill establishes sentence lengths for the second-offense of drug trafficking. The second offense would be not less than 10 years but no more than 40 years. The bill eliminated the requirement that the second offense be served consecutively with any other sentence. 

The House measure will allow eligible persons still serving a mandatory minimum for certain felony convictions to petition the court for a sentence reduction.

Now the bills head to other chambers where the differences will be resolved. Surovell cited a report that estimates eliminating mandatory minimums could save taxpayers $80 million every five years. 

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.

Mixed Reaction to Senate Passage of Bill for In-Person Education

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill which would require in-person instruction, along with virtual learning, be made available to Virginia public school students upon request passed the Virginia Senate Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1303, introduced by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, aims to make sure students have the opportunity to attend in-person instruction. The student’s parent or guardian must make the request, according to the bill. The legislation passed the Senate on a 26-13 vote.

The bill does not lay out specific expectations of local school divisions in regard to in-person learning, according to the bill’s text. The original version of the bill required the measure to go into effect once the legislation passed the Virginia General Assembly, but an amended version of the bill removed that requirement. Without that stipulation, the bill will take effect on July 1, according to Dunnavant.

Many Virginia school systems, including Fairfax County, Hanover County and Alexandria City Public Schools, begin summer break in mid-June, according to their academic calendars.

During the bill’s committee hearing, Dunnavant said that it is more dangerous for children to not be in the classroom. 

“We have amazing evidence to show that being in school is safe for both students and teachers,” Dunnavant said. “We have profoundly disturbing evidence that not having in-person school for a body of our students is possibly, irrevocably damaging.”

“I think it is probably the most important thing that we can do this session,” Dunnavant added.

Dunnavant stressed the need for innovation in educating students in grade school similar to how many colleges were able to provide in-person education for students.

“If you look at the interventions and the innovations that they have created to make it safe, and again, without outbreaks, you would be so proud,” Dunnavant said on the Senate floor before the bill passed.

Dunnavant’s comments come after 20 active cases of COVID-19 among students and teachers led Hurt Elementary School in Pittsylvania County to abruptly stop in-person classes last week, according to the Danville Register & Bee

Chesterfield County Public Schools is trying a mixed approach, sending some elementary students to in-person classes while keeping middle and high school students fully online, according to NBC 12. Chesterfield returned to virtual learning after Thanksgiving when COVID-19 cases spiked. Chesterfield County School Board will discuss a broader return to in-person learning on Feb. 9.

The reactions to the bill from senators were mixed. Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, called the bill “a slap in the face” to school board members despite expressing her support for the goal the bill was trying to achieve. Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, said it is critical that students returned to in-person schooling soon but criticized the bill’s terms for being too vague.

During the committee hearing for the measure, Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said that the people in communities are the ones that should make decisions concerning school operations. 

“It should not, in my opinion, be those of us from all over the state deciding what should happen in someone else’s jurisdiction,” Howell said.

Virginia Education Association President James Fedderman said in an email he strongly opposed the bill. He called the legislation an “unnecessary and ill-advised state mandate.”

The bill now moves to the House of Delegates.

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 Senate committee rejects hate crime expansion bill

 

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Legislators attempted to pass a bill that would expand the definition of a hate crime to include crimes against people based on perception, but opponents said the bill was too broad and could be misused. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill by for the year late last month. Four Democrats strayed from party lines to vote against the bill after much debate.

The current statute defines hate crime victims as those who are maliciously targeted based on race, religion, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation or ethnicity. Legislators passed the legislation last year during the General Assembly session.

Senate Bill 1203, proposed by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, aimed to ensure that someone who maliciously attacks a person based on their perception of that person’s membership or association within one of the aforementioned groups is held to the same standard as someone who attacks a person they know is a member of one of the groups. Hashmi’s bill also added color, national origin and gender expression to the list of protected classes.

Hashmi cited an incident during Black Lives Matter protests last summer in which Harry H. Rogers, an avowed high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, drove his truck into a crowd of protesters. Henrico’s Commonwealth Attorney Shannon Taylor said her client, who was hit, was not protected under current hate crime legislation because he is white. She said Rogers drove his truck with the intention to disrupt the protests.

“Our current law looks more at the victim and the victim’s characteristics than it does looking at the offender and his intent,” Taylor said.

Vee Lamneck, the executive director of Equality Virginia, said hate crimes are more than acts of violence. Such crimes are committed with the intention of inciting fear and dehumanizing groups, Lamneck said.

“Individuals with intersecting identities, especially Black, Latinx and Indigenous LGBTQ people are exposed to higher rates of violence,” Lamneck said. “Redefinition of the categories in this bill will help to further ensure that all diverse members of our communities are sufficiently protected by the law from hate crime violence and that perpetrators of such violence are held appropriately responsible.”

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said during the committee hearing that the bill was a massive expansion of the current statute. Petersen said the proposed changes would be “pretty far off-field from the original purpose.”

Opponents, including the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the bill was too broad and could allow for the exploitation of who was a hate crime victim. Legislators pondered over if this meant a person of color could be charged with a hate crime for assaulting a white person and postulated several scenarios of how the bill could be misused.

Emanuel Harris, a representative for the Black Coalition for Change, called the questioning of the protection of white supremacists puzzling, offensive and laughable.

“The history has shown that the black community is the one being intimidated, not the other way around,” Harris said during the public comment portion of the meeting. Harris said the original statute needs to be expanded.

“I am offended that folks brought this and then clouded, or wrapped it up in BLM, and suggested that if we vote against it, somehow we’re not supporting the prosecution of hate crimes, cause that is not what we are doing,” said Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond. “This bill is offensive in so many different ways.” 

Morrissey was a co-patron for the hate crime legislation that passed in 2020.

Hashmi said Morrissey was approaching the bill from a position of privilege, at which point Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, interrupted with an “Oh my God.” Hashmi continued and said the bill addressed race as well as oppressed and terrorized religious and LGBTQ communities. 

The Anti-Defamation League helped with the bill’s language. Meredith R. Weisel, representing the ADL, said the bill is important because it would help ensure that offenders who are mistaken about the victim’s protected characteristics can still be held accountable for a hate crime under the law.

Brittany Whitley, chief of external affairs and policy with the Office of the Attorney General spoke in support of the bill along with other citizens and attorneys.

Hashmi said in an email that she hopes to refine the language in the bill and will consider reintroducing it next year. 

"Addressing hate crimes is important for the well-being of our communities: hate crimes are designed to harm and inflict pain on not just the targeted individual(s) but also to intimidate and terrorize entire groups of people,” 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.

Two Bills Advance to Facilitate COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia House and Senate have unanimously advanced separate bills to facilitate administration of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

House Bill 2333, introduced by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, intends to strengthen the state’s vaccine distribution efforts and also bolster data collection.

The measure removes barriers on health care providers’ eligibility to conduct vaccination. Any person licensed or certified by the appropriate health regulatory board, who is in good standing within the past 10 years, can volunteer to vaccinate. This includes nurse practitioners, physician assistants and pharmacy technicians. The bill also allows anyone to volunteer whose license was in good standing within 10 years before it lapsed.

Health profession students enrolled in statewide accredited programs who have been properly trained in vaccine administration will also be allowed to volunteer. 

The bill directs the Virginia Department of Health to establish a program where eligible individuals may volunteer and complete training. 

Institutions such as hospitals, medical care facilities and universities would be able to volunteer their facilities as vaccine administration sites.

The bill also requires the collection of race and ethnicity data of people receiving the vaccine. Bagby said during the House meeting that this will ensure a more equitable vaccination rollout. The bill also allows higher education institutions to assist VDH with data processing and analytics.

“(This emergency legislation) is essential to making Virginia safely and efficiently distribute the COVID-19 vaccine supply we will receive from the federal government,” Bagby said.

VDH does not mandate reporting data based on race and ethnicity, but vaccine providers are asked to enter such data, states the organization’s website. Over 300,000 vaccines have been administered without data collection of race or ethnicity, according to the department’s vaccine dashboard.

A similar bill cleared the Senate unanimously last week. That measure, introduced by Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant, R-Henrico, does not require data collection on race and ethnicities. Dunnavant’s bill, Senate Bill 1445, allows anyone licensed or certified by the Department of Health Professions with good standing to volunteer, including those whose licenses were in good standing within five years prior to lapsing due to retiring. 

Del. Israel D. O’Quinn, R-Bristol, chief-co patron of the House bill, said during the meeting that despite the two bills he “has no doubt that we can work through those differences expeditiously.” 

The bill’s House passage on Tuesday came hours after President Joe Biden announced efforts to increase the country’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines by 200 million by the end of summer.

The Biden Administration plans to distribute weekly a minimum of 10 million doses to states, tribes and territories. The move would add 1.4 million doses per week than what’s currently being distributed. Biden’s administration said it will try to maintain the distribution for at least the next three weeks.

Roughly more than half a million Virginians have been vaccinated as of Wednesday with at least one dose. That means nearly 67% of the available first doses Virginia received were administered, according to the VDH vaccine dashboard. Over 488,000 total COVID-19 cases have been reported in Virginia as of Wednesday. The 7-day positivity rate is over 12% throughout the state.

 "People want to help," O'Quinn said. "I think we can put a lot of people to work utilizing their skills that have been honed in our communities."

The bills now head to the other chambers.

Lawmakers Advance Voting Rights Act of Virginia

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- On the first day of Black History Month, legislators advanced a bill to help ensure voter protection for Virginia citizens. 

House Bill 1890, also known as the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, cleared the House in a 55-45 vote. 

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, modeled the bill after the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Price’s bill aims to eliminate voter suppression, intimidation and discrimination through changes in voting laws and practices by election officials. 

“Though the original Voting Rights Act was passed on the federal level in 1965, there are still attacks on voting rights today that can result in voter suppression, discrimination and intimidation,” Price said during the bill’s hearing. “We need to be clear that this is not welcome in our great commonwealth.”

 The bill prohibits localities from influencing the results of elections by “diluting or abridging the rights of voters who are from a protected class.” The measure defines the protected class as a group of citizens protected from discrimination based on race, color, or membership in a language minority group. 

The bill also requires voting materials to be made in languages other than English if certain criteria are met. 

“HB 1890 requires that changes to voting laws and regulations be advertised in advance for public comment and evaluated for impact on Black, Indigenous and people of color communities,” Price said while speaking about the bill. 

The bill allows the attorney general to sue if a locality or official violates election laws. Fees or fines that are won in the lawsuit will go to a Voter Education and Outreach Fund established pursuant to the bill’s passage. The fine for a first offense can not exceed $50,000 and fines for a second offense can not exceed $100,000.

Barbara Tabb, president of the Virginia Electoral Board Association, believes that attaching fines to the bill has the potential to scare off election officers.

“This will result in definitely a much harder time in recruiting our election officials,” Tabb said. "That’s my concern about it.”

Price said this bill is important because the attack on the Voting Rights Act has not stopped since 1965. She said the landmark law was “gutted” on the federal level with the Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013.

“What this [HB 1890] will do is restore some of those protections and allow for Virginia to say, ‘We believe in the full Voting Rights Act and we know that it’s needed,’” Price said 

Legislators have passed a number of recent laws to make voting easier, including making Election Day a holiday, allowing early, in-person voting and permitting no-excuse absentee voting. 

Price said she compiled examples of voter suppression ranging from moving polling places off public transit lines, or from a community center to a sheriff’s office.

“Voter suppression doesn't always look like taking a box of ballots and throwing it out,” she said. “It can be implicit, it can be unintentional.”

Price said she worked with several groups to ensure the bill ends discrimination and voter suppression. In addition to community advocates, she consulted with lawyers currently representing impacted voters, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Advancement Project and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Senate Bill 1395, the sister bill in the Senate, was introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. The bill has been referred to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. 

Delegate Tries Again to Advance Paid Sick Leave Bill

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- A Virginia House of Delegates committee advanced a measure into appropriations that would provide some essential workers with paid sick leave.

House Bill 2137, introduced by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, reported out of the House Labor and Commerce committee Thursday in a 13-8 vote along party lines. 

This is Guzman’s latest effort to pass a paid sick leave bill. Guzman’s previous legislation died in a Senate committee during the Virginia General Assembly special session held last year.

Employees would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, according to the bill. Businesses would be required to allow employees to start earning paid sick hours immediately upon hiring. Paid sick leave can be carried over to the following year.

Employees eligible for paid sick leave include first responders, educators and retail workers. 

Supporters and opponents continue to share similar praises and concerns they had with Guzman’s previous paid sick leave bill. The delegate said she made the bill broader this session based on feedback she received from legislators.

Representatives from the Virginia Poultry and Virginia Retail federations cited concerns of additional business regulation and costs. Concerns were also raised about the broad terms of the bill’s hardship waiver, which would allow businesses to opt-out of offering paid sick leave to employees if they can prove doing so would jeopardize business.

“It's difficult to say at this time if the hardship waiver would be beneficial for an employer since it leaves broad direction to the department and the standing offices,” Jodi Roth, a lobbyist with the Virginia Retail Federation, said during the bill’s hearing.

Guzman said she intends for the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, or DOLI, to provide more specific guidelines for opting-out once the bill is passed. The bill requires businesses to provide “evidence demonstrating that providing paid sick leave threatens the financial viability of the employer” in order to opt-out.

Last year the General Assembly voted to incrementally increase Virginia’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026. The first minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour will occur on May 1.

The bill would cost DOLI roughly $420,000 for the 2022 fiscal year, and then roughly $320,000 per year onward, according to the bill’s impact statement.

Kim Bobo, the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center of Public Policy, said during the subcommittee hearing that the organization remains in favor of the bill.

“It will allow us over time to demonstrate that a paid sick day standard is not a hardship for business, but rather an essential benefit that should be available to all workers,” Bobo said.

The organization is a non-partisan coalition of all faiths that is focused on justice reform, according to its website. The organization strongly supported Guzman’s previous paid sick day bill during the 2020 special session.

“Certainly, we in Virginia want to say, ‘paid sick day is a standard,’” Bobo said.

This is the fourth paid leave bill Guzman has brought before the House since 2018, according to legislative records.

“This is a priority for the House Democratic Caucus,” Guzman said. “We definitely have 55 or 54 votes.”

Guzman’s bill was referred to a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

New Virginia laws seek to close ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

By Brandon Shillingford and Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va.-- The near future of in-person schooling is uncertain due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Virginia students will return to a system where several penalties for misbehavior have been taken off the table. 

Two new laws seek to stop criminal punishments in elementary, middle and secondary schools. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, sponsored two measures that passed the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year. The bills went into effect in July but have not yet been widely implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Senate Bill 3 prevents students from being charged with disorderly conduct during school, on buses, or at school-sponsored events. SB 729 removes a requirement that school principals report student acts that constitute a misdemeanor to law enforcement. These are acts that may be considered misdemeanors, such as assault on school property, including on a bus or at a school-sponsored event. 

McClellan’s bills are a victory, said Valerie Slater, executive director of RISE For Youth, a group that seeks to end youth incarceration in Virginia. 

“It gives the control back to principals in their own schools about what actions have to be taken further,” versus which actions can be handled within the school, Slater said.

Suspension and expulsion are used disproportionately against Black students, other students of color and those with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those punishments, along with arrests at school, often lead to students having a criminal record, according to the NAACP. The trend is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

McClellan said she was compelled to introduce these bills after looking at data released by the Center for Public Integrity in 2015 and seeing that Virginia led the nation in nearly three times the rate of referral of students to law enforcement. She then worked with the Legal Aid Justice Center to find trends in what kind of behaviors were being punished and whether there were discrepancies involving which students were being charged. 

“When we started sort of digging into some of the cases that they had had, one of the biggest things kids were referred for was disorderly conduct,” McClellan said. “It was things like a kid on a bus in Henrico County was charged for singing a rap song and a kid in Lynchburg was sent to the principal's office and kicked this trash can on the way out of class.”

McClellan was the co-patron of bills in 2016 which addressed these issues, including a failed bill which would prevent students from being found guilty of disorderly conduct if the action occurred on school property, school bus or at a school-sponsored activity.

 Lawmakers also passed McClellan’s measure that relieved school resource officers from the obligation to enforce school board rules and codes of student conduct as a condition of their employment. Now that the Virginia General Assembly has a Democratic majority, House Democrats felt that they could pass other legislation to curb the school-to-prison pipeline, according to McClellan.

“The thing that happened in between is we had started making progress on the discipline side with things like suspensions and expulsions,” McClellan said. “And once you saw we could make progress on that, that gave us the confidence to try again with a new Democratic majority.”

A statewide analysis by Virginia Commonwealth University Capital News Service found that Norfolk City Public Schools in the Tidewater district had the most out-of-school suspensions in the state over the past five school years. This includes short-term and long-term suspensions. The data is from the Virginia Department of Education. A student is not allowed to attend school for up to 10 days during a short-term suspension, according to Virginia law. Long-term suspensions last 11 to 45 school days. Virginia students suspended from school are more likely to fail academically, drop out of school and become involved in the justice system, said a 2018 Legal Aid Justice Center report. 

Norfolk’s school district issued 21,223 out-of-school suspensions in the past five years. Norfolk school officials did not respond to a request for a statement by the time of publication. Richmond City Public Schools was the second-highest district with the most out-of-school suspensions (19,768). Virginia Beach, Newport News and Fairfax County public schools were also in the top five. The majority of students in Norfolk, Richmond and Newport News public schools are Black, according to VDOE 2020 fall enrollment data. Almost half of students in Virginia Beach are white and about a quarter are Black. Nearly 40% of students in Fairfax County Public Schools are white and almost 30% are Hispanic. Black students face out-of-school suspension at higher rates at a higher rate than white students in schools throughout the Central Virginia region. Even in districts such as Henrico and New Kent counties that are a majority white student population, often Black students were issued suspensions at a higher rate. Black students in Henrico faced out-of-school suspension almost five times the rate of white students in the 2015-2016 school year. Such racial disparity was presented to the Henrico County School Board as far back as 2012, in a published report analyzing the disproportionate suspension rate. 

Aside from incidents involving weapons, Slater said that instances of misbehavior in school should not be handled by law enforcement.

 “We should not be so quick to involve children in the justice system,” Slater said. “We know that after that first contact, the likelihood that there will be continued engagement exponentially goes up. Once a child has been engaged with the juvenile justice system, they’re more likely to be involved with the adult justice system.”

Slater praised McClellan’s legislation for taking away schools’ ability to charge students with disorderly conduct, saying that the criteria for being charged with that crime is too vague. 

“It basically says that ‘you have caused a disruption.’” Slater said. “Is wiggling in my seat causing a disruption? Is asking to go to the restroom, repeatedly, causing a disruption? Is clicking my pen a disruption? It’s so vague that it’s become a catchall for whatever a particular officer wants to say a student has done.”

David Coogan, a Virginia Commonwealth University English professor and author of the book “Writing Our Way Out,” teaches a writing workshop at the Richmond City Justice Center He said he has worked closely with incarcerated people whose criminal records stemmed from childhood. 

“Most broadly, it starts in the structure of society, before you even get to school,” Coogan said. 

Coogan said that he sees a pattern in the people he works with at the jail. Children who grow up with few resources and who experience trauma and violence in the school setting later develop addictions or become incarcerated—often both. 

“We all do stupid things as kids, as teenagers,” Coogan said. “When you’re Black and traumatized and living in poverty, the stupid thing you do, to fight back at a school resource officer, is going to land you in a juvenile detention center and it’s not fair.”

Though Coogan says McClellan’s bills are steps in the right direction, he believes that more still needs to be done. 

“If you think about all the money and time spent on school resource officers—who are like cops—we need to stop thinking about having cops in school,” Coogan said. “What if we had five times as many guidance counselors -- people with training to intervene? What if we had five times as many programs to keep kids engaged after school?”

McClellan agreed with Coogan, and said it starts with how adults in school treat kids. She pointed to cases in which kids with autism or other disabilities are treated unfairly or disciplined by adults who have no idea how to interact with them. 

“Everyone in the school building that interacts with kids, but especially school resource officers and school board members who ultimately make decisions about the code of conduct and discipline, need to have basic training on child brain development,” McClellan said.

Virginia lawmakers pass legislation to make Juneteenth a state holiday

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Juneteenth has officially become a state holiday after lawmakers unanimously approved legislation during the Virginia General Assembly special session. 

Juneteenth marks the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, which was the last state to abolish slavery. The companion bills were introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation on Oct. 13.

“Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States,” Northam said during a press conference held that day. “It’s time we elevate this, not just a celebration by and for some Virginia, but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.”

Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, introduced a bill in the legislative session earlier this year to recognize Juneteenth, but the proposal didn’t advance. 

Northam proposed making Juneteenth a state holiday in June during a press conference that included musician and Virginia-native Pharrell Williams. Northam signed an executive order that gave executive branch employees and state colleges the day off. Some Virginia localities, such as Richmond and several places in Hampton Roads, also observed the holiday this year.

“I think it is overdue that the Commonwealth formally honor and celebrate the emancipation and end of slavery,” Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, a co-patron of the bill, said in an email. “It was a step towards fulfilling the promise of equality contained in our founding documents.” 

The Elegba Folklore Society, a Richmond-based organization focused on promoting African culture, history and arts, is one of the groups that has been celebrating the holiday for decades. The celebration usually is a three-day weekend event that looks at the history of Juneteenth. A torch-lit walk down the Trail of Enslaved Africans in Richmond is also held, said Janine Bell, the society’s president and artistic director. 

“We take time to just say thank you to our ancestors, their contributions, their forfeitures, their trials and tribulations,” Bell said. “We invite people to Richmond’s African burial ground so that we can go there and pay homage from a perspective of African spirituality.”

Juneteenth should not be used as another holiday to look for bargains in stores, Bell said. It should be a time for reflection about liberty, as well as for celebration and family strengthening.

“It’s a time for optimism and joy,” Bell said. 

The Elegba Folklore Society broadcasted its Juneteenth event online this year due to the coronavirus. Although there were still around 7,000 views, Bell said that it is usually much larger and has international influence. 

Cries for police reform and social justice continue to increase, Bell said. More attention is being drawn to the racial disparities across America. With this, people have been changing their priorities concerning issues such as discrimination.

“This was a step towards equity,” Bell said about the bill. “A symbolic step, but a step nonetheless.”

State workers will be off during Juneteenth. If the job requires individuals to come in to work, then they will be compensated with overtime or extra pay, said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a patron for the bill. 

The General Assembly wrapped up the agenda last week for the special session that began Aug. 18. Northam called the session to update the state budget and to address criminal and social justice reform and issues related to COVID-19.

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.

Delegate Plans To Reintroduce Quarantine Pay Bill Next Session

 

By Zachary Klosko, By Capital New Source

RICHMOND, Va. -- Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, said she is no stranger to the struggles of low-paying jobs. Guzmán said she immigrated to the United States from Peru as a single mother and worked multiple minimum wage jobs just to be able to pay rent and care for her daughter.

Guzmán has a mission to secure better financial benefits for minimum wage workers, but she said it’s not going as planned.

Guzmán’s House Bill 5116 was killed in a Senate committee during the Virginia General Assembly special session after being passed by the House. The General Assembly is currently meeting to tackle the state budget and other issues that have come up due to COVID-19.

The bill would have mandated quarantine pay for employees of businesses with more than 25 workers. It would require public and private employers to provide paid quarantine leave that could be immediately used by the employee, regardless of how long they had been employed. The paid quarantine leave could be used for the employee’s health care needs or for care of a family member with an illness or health condition related to COVID-19.

Guzmán said she’s frustrated, but she plans to introduce the bill again during the next legislative session. 

“Most of the arguments that I heard was because businesses are hurting and it was not the right time,” Guzmán said. “I think it's like we hear a lot about businesses but we don't hear about the working class and who's going to be, you know, fighting for them.”

Guzmán introduced a bill in the spring session before the coronavirus to require employers to provide paid sick leave for employees. After the Committee on Appropriations killed that bill, Guzmán introduced her current bill as an effort to keep advocating for worker's rights.

Kim Bobo, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said her organization is in favor of Guzmán’s bill. Bobo said paid sick days and getting paid a minimum wage are basic standards employers should be able to provide for their employees without government assistance.

“We really don't believe that public funds should be used to subsidize employers providing such a basic core standard as paid sick days,” Bobo said. “We will not include anything like that in a bill going forward.”

Being able to take paid time off can have a larger impact on the community because workers don’t have to choose between their families’ well-being and a paycheck, Bobo said.

“They will stay home when their children are sick and they won't send their kids to school sick, which is what happens right now,” she said.

Bobo isn’t the only supporter of Guzmán’s bill. Eighty-three percent of Virginians support paid time off mandates, according to a recent YouGov poll commissioned in part by the Interfaith Center. 

Del. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, voiced his concerns during the bill’s third reading on Sept. 10. Head said Guzmán’s bill largely mirrors federal legislation. 

“This bill is going to cause businesses who might hire people to think twice about it,” Head said. “It's going to raise their expenses for hiring people, and it's going to end up hurting many of the very people that you're trying to help with this legislation.”

The Department of Labor and Industry estimated the bill would cost the department over $46,000 in 2021 and an additional $92,000 in 2022, according to the bill’s impact statement. The Department of Medical Assisted Services estimated the costs at $28.8 million for fiscal year 2021 and $29.8 million for fiscal year 2022. The bill would last until July 1, 2021, or until Gov. Ralph Northam’s state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic expires.

Guzmán said she isn’t deterred. After Northam and first lady Pamela Northam announced they tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 25, Guzmán said she needed to quarantine at home. She had visited a school with the first lady just a few days prior.

“Listen, there are 1.2 million Virginians out there that, if they were in the same situation that we are today, they would continue to go to work, because they don't have a dime,” Guzmán said firmly. “Please pass the message to the governor and the first lady.”

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.

ATTORNEY GENERAL HERRING OUTLINES PRIORITIES FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND POLICING REFORM AHEAD OF SPECIAL SESSION

~ Slate of priorities includes measures he has advocated for years and additional steps to reduce brutality and abuses of authority, and increase transparency, accountability, justice, and equality ~

RICHMOND —Ahead of the upcoming special session of the General Assembly, Attorney General Mark R. Herring today outlined his priorities for criminal justice and policing reforms that will reduce brutality and abuses of power by law enforcement, increase transparency, accountability, justice, and equality, and address disparities throughout the criminal justice system from policing to re-entry.

“Virginia cannot have different systems and standards of justice depending on the color of a person's skin,” said Attorney General Mark Herring. “Ours must be a Commonwealth where justice, equality and opportunity are guaranteed for each and every person, no matter where they live, what they look like, how they worship, who they love, or how much money they have.

“We know that African-Americans and Virginians of color experience the criminal justice system differently at every level from policing through prosecution and into re-entry. It is documented and undeniable. That’s a hard thing to admit, but it’s even harder to experience. It means that we are failing in one of our most foundational responsibilities as a country and a Commonwealth: to ensure that all men and women are truly treated equal.

“This moment has given us an opportunity like none I can recall in my lifetime to truly focus on how we create a criminal justice system that meets our public safety goals in a way that ensures justice and equality for all. Those of us who have been frustrated by the pace of change in previous years now have the benefit of open minds and a broader recognition of the change that is needed in this country to ensure that Black lives matter, and that the criminal justice system is oriented around justice and safety, not simply control or oppression.”

In the upcoming special session, Attorney General Herring will be supporting the following measures:

Police Reform:

  • Enable the Attorney General of Virginia to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations
  • Modernize, standardize, and elevate the rigor of police training
  • Department of Criminal Justice Services should be required to develop within the year a new basic training curriculum in conjunction with the Office of Attorney General
  • Current law enforcement officers must have 21st century policing skills included in their annual in-service training curriculum
  • Make it easier to remove bad officers from the law enforcement profession
  • Expand police decertification criteria to include misconduct, not just criminal convictions.
  • Establish a more robust database of officer discipline, terminations, and decertification.
  • Ban rehiring of officers who are fired for misconduct or excessive force, or who resign during an investigation into misconduct or excessive force.
  • Create a “duty to intervene” for law enforcement officers.
  • Ban or limit dangerous, unnecessary, and potentially deadly police tactics
  • Empower localities to establish citizen review panels
  • Require the use of body worn cameras by all law enforcement officers
  • Require law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to engage an independent agency or Commonwealth’s Attorney to conduct investigations and make prosecutorial decisions

Criminal Justice Reform:

  • Cash bail reform
  • Expanding opportunities for record expungement and simplifying the process
  • Continued momentum toward legal, regulated adult use of cannabis and resolve past convictions

“For many months now, I have been waiting for a response from the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice to my request for an independent investigation into one of my local police departments. But for the return receipt requested signature card, I didn’t even receive an acknowledgement to my letter. If the federal government isn’t going to provide this oversight when police departments may be violating citizen’s rights, then there needs to be a state backstop that can conduct these necessary investigations. It is for these reasons, I will introduce a bill in the Special Session of the General Assembly to enable the Attorney General of Virginia to conduct “patterns and practices investigations of local police departments,” said Senator Louise Lucas.

“Since 2017 the Trump Administration’s DOJ has refused to address systemic failures and investigate possible unconstitutional practices in law enforcement agencies. With that in mind, the Attorney General needs to have the authority to investigate and resolve patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing, such as use of excessive force, illegal searches, or biased policing,” stated Delegate Alfonso Lopez. “This legislation finally gives the Attorney General the authority to investigate, subpoena, and bring appropriate actions in court to ensure compliance with constitutional policing standards.” 

In the area of police reform, Attorney General Herring will be actively working to ensure passage of the following bills and policies:

Enable the Attorney General of Virginia to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations of law enforcement agencies to identify and put a stop to unconstitutional practices, such as patterns of excessive force, illegal searches, biased policing, or other unconstitutional practices. For decades the U.S. Department of Justice was a reliable partner in identifying and ending unconstitutional policing practices, often through negotiated agreements for reforms, called “consent decrees,” in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson, MO. Under the Trump Administration the DOJ has explicitly walked away from this responsibility, making it more important for state attorneys general to have this important tool. In June, Attorney General Herring asked Congress to expand federal law to give him and other state attorneys general clear statutory authority to conduct patterns and practice investigations. The U.S House of Representatives included this authority in the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” which passed the House on June 25, 2020.

Modernize, standardize, and elevate the rigor of police training to include mandatory training on implicit bias, racial bias, crisis intervention, de-escalation, hate crimes, violence interruption, and other 21st century policing skills. Because of the immense power placed in the hands of law enforcement officers, the Commonwealth must treat the law enforcement profession as a highly-skilled and specialized field that requires both proper training and high standards.

In order to ensure proper, 21st century training for Virginia law enforcement officers:

  • The Department of Criminal Justice Services should be required to develop within the year a new basic training curriculum in conjunction with the Office of Attorney General that includes implicit bias, racial bias, crisis intervention, de-escalation, hate crimes, violence interruption, and other 21st century policing skills.
  • Current law enforcement officers must have 21st century policing skills included in their annual in-service training curriculum. In 2015, Attorney General Herring sponsored a series of five regional “train-the-trainer” conferences to promote the wider adoption of implicit bias training, de-escalation, and other 21st century policing skills. The training officers from more than 50 law enforcement agencies participated, then went back to their departments and taught their colleagues, making this one of Virginia’s largest-ever investments in 21st century policing skills.

Make it easier to remove bad officers from the law enforcement profession. The Commonwealth should hold its law enforcement officers to the highest standards because they are empowered to make life-and-death decisions and other serious decisions that could dramatically affect the life of a Virginian. Virginia must therefore ensure that it removes from the profession any individuals who prove themselves unworthy or incapable of bearing such responsibility.

Virginia should:

  • Expand police decertification criteria to include misconduct, not just criminal convictions. Currently an officer may only lose their law enforcement officer certification for a criminal conviction. Misconduct that may not rise to the level of criminal conduct must be a basis for decertifying officers.
  • Establish a more robust database of officer discipline, terminations, and decertification. If an individual has proven they are not capable of exercising law enforcement authority in a safe, fair, impartial, and constitutional way, they should not be able to conceal that information from a department or simply switch departments and continue their career.
  • Ban rehiring of officers who are fired for misconduct or excessive force, or who resign during an investigation into misconduct or excessive force. No law enforcement officer should be able to hide behind a resignation to avoid accountability and continue their career when they have shown they may not be capable of serving in law enforcement.
  • Create a legal obligation for “duty to intervene” for law enforcement officers when they see another officer using excessive force, when it’s safe to intervene, and regardless of intervention they must immediately report the incident to their supervisors.
  • Ban or limit dangerous, unnecessary, and potentially deadly police tactics like chokeholds, strangleholds, and no-knock warrants.
  • Empower localities to establish citizen review panels with necessary investigative authority and, where possible, provide state-level support.
  • Require the use of body worn cameras by all law enforcement officers to ensure a complete and accurate account of any citizen-officer interactions.
  • Require law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to engage an independent agency or Commonwealth’s Attorney to conduct investigations and make prosecutorial decisions on officer-involved incidents that may constitute criminal conduct, including use of force or killings by law enforcement officers.

Attorney General Herring will also be working for the passage of the following bills and policies to strengthen our communities and reduce racial and economic disparities through reform of Virginia’s criminal justice system:

  • Cash bail reform. Attorney General Herring has long supported significant reforms to Virginia’s cash bail system which, in its current form, can lead to unjust outcomes where dangerous people with money can go free while nonviolent people sit in jail for days, weeks, or months because they can’t afford to pay bail. This can cause a person to lose their job, housing, and support systems. Attorney General Herring will be pushing for Virginia to move away from the use of cash bail as its default for low level offenses and instead expand pretrial services that have proven to be effective and cheaper.
  • Expanding opportunities for record expungement and simplifying the process. Attorney General Herring has also advocated for expanding record expungement opportunities and simplifying the process to build a more just and fair criminal justice system and to address the disproportionate burden that criminal convictions place on African Americans and people of color. Virginia is one of the nation’s least forgiving and most restrictive states for individuals who have earned the opportunity to have old convictions and charges expunged from their records. While many other states have some form of a “Clean Slate” law, the Commonwealth appears to be one of just ten states that does not offer any sort of judicial “record closure” for any adult convictions, nor does it offer any automatic expungement for those who are eligible for expungement. This means that a relatively minor charge or conviction, like marijuana or alcohol possession, can become a permanent stain that limits a Virginian’s job, educational, and housing opportunities.
  • Continued momentum toward legal, regulated adult use of cannabis and resolve past convictions. During the 2020 General Assembly Session, Attorney General Herring helped successfully decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but believes Virginia needs to continue on to full legal, regulated adult use as quickly as possible, because the social and human costs of prohibition fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color. In 2018, there were nearly 29,000 marijuana arrests, and the Virginia Crime Commission found that from 2007 to 2016 46% of all individuals arrested for first offense marijuana possession were African American, despite being just 20% of Virginia’s population.

In addition to these policing and criminal justice reform priorities, Attorney General Herring supports measures that require officers to deescalate situations, and to better utilize specialized resources instead of police officers to respond to non-public safety situations, such as addiction, a person experiencing homelessness, or a mental health crisis.

House Democratic Majority Leads Sweeping Change in Virginia

RICHMOND, VA—The seismic shift created by Virginia voters last year when they elected a Democratic majority to the Virginia House of Delegates yielded a parallel shift in public policy, resulting in landmark legislation taking effect July 1, 2020. These new laws, which benefit Virginians in ways obstructed by past General Assembly majorities, include crucial gun violence prevention measures, more expansive voter rights, new anti-discrimination protections for women and the LGBTQ+ community, and energy policies that will reduce the Commonwealth’s use of fossil fuels for electricity. 

"Last November, voters called for decisive, impactful action to make their communities safe and more prosperous. We have delivered on that mandate. We took that action. And tomorrow, many of these bills become law,” said Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn. “These laws will strengthen our democracy, protect Virginians from gun violence, tackle discrimination to make our Commonwealth fairer, combat the climate change crisis, give women the ability to make their own reproductive decisions, make our criminal justice system fairer (with much work ahead) and build on our economic progress in every corner of the Commonwealth."

Last week, Speaker Filler-Corn announced that the House Courts of Justice and Public Safety Committees will hold joint public hearings in July and August regarding police and criminal justice reform. Information gathered during the hearings will better prepare the House of Delegates to act in the upcoming special session, and the 2021 regular session, on these matters and others related to racial inequities in Virginia and the nation.

“Our first year serving in the majority has been marked by new highs in the passage of landmark legislation in the effort to make Virginia a more inclusive and better place to live, work, and raise a family,” said House Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “Our work reversing systemic inequities and injustices is not over and we look forward to making further progress for the Commonwealth during the special session and 2021.”

In 2019, a historic blue wave ushered in the first Democratic majority in the House of Delegates in more than 20 years. House Democrats appointed more women and people of color to leadership and committee chair positions than ever before in the legislative body’s 401-year history. Heeding the call of the Virginia voters who put them into the majority, Democratic legislators swiftly advanced legislation to improve the lives of residents all across the Commonwealth.

“When voters across the Commonwealth stood up and elected Democrats last year, House Democrats listened and passed hundreds of bills based on Virginians' calls for change,” said House Democratic Caucus Chair Rip Sullivan. “July 1 officially marks a new beginning in the Commonwealth, when more Virginians will be heard and recognized. House Democrats are preparing to return to Richmond for the special session and the 2021 regular legislative session with the same level of determination and innovation to create thoughtful solutions benefiting everyone in the Commonwealth.”

In addition to legislation, the House also passed the House and Senate resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming the 38th and final state required by the U.S. Constitution. Other important matters were also addressed in joint resolutions, such as Delegate Cia Price’s HJ 111 designating July as Maternal Health Awareness Month in Virginia. This observance, which begins in 2020, will bring public attention to the problem of increased maternal mortality in the nation and the Commonwealth, especially the much-higher rates among African-American women. Unlike bills, resolutions do not involve any action by the governor. 

Here is a list of some of the House Democrats’ major legislative accomplishments going into effect on July 1:

  • Passing common-sense gun safety legislation. Seven House bills establishing stronger gun safety measures — all introduced in response to the Virginia Beach tragedy in May 2019 — were signed by the governor. These laws implement universal background checks for sales of firearms, require gun owners to report lost and stolen firearms, increase the penalty for recklessly allowing children to have access to loaded firearms, allow localities to ban firearms at certain public facilities or events, establish substantial risk protective orders, prohibit persons subject to domestic violence protective orders from possessing firearms, and restore a limit on the number of gun purchases a person may make per month.

  • Combatting voter suppression with measures to grant people more accessibility and flexibility to vote. These laws include making election day a state holiday in place of Lee-Jackson Day, implementing “no excuse” absentee voting, expanding the types of ID voters may present in order to vote, and ensuring that mail-in ballots postmarked on election day can be counted.

  • Attacking racial inequities by implementing new and increased protections such as outlawing racial discrimination based on styles of hair or dress, promoting equal pay regardless of race, and expanding the justice system’s ability to investigate hate crimes based on race. House Democrats also backed several bills now becoming law that address environmental justice and seek to prevent health risks or disproportionate impacts of environmental pollution or environmental policies on minority communities. 

  • Empowering women through restoring reproductive rights, promoting equal pay, outlawing pregnancy discrimination, prohibiting schools from adopting dress code policies that have a disparate impact on a specific gender, improving treatment for prison inmates who are pregnant or have recently given birth, and making menstrual supplies available in public schools without charge.

  • Enhancing rights for the victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking. Protective measures include prohibiting persons subject to protective orders due to domestic violence from possessing firearms, requiring colleges and universities to grant disciplinary immunity from self-disclosed alcohol and drug violations for victims and bystanders who report sexual assaults, and informing localities and local immigration organizations of human trafficking risks to which immigrants may be more vulnerable.

  • Setting new progressive environmental standards and priorities. In 2020, House Democrats successfully pushed for Virginia to become the most environmentally progressive state in the South by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and passing the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which puts Virginia on the path toward a 100 percent renewable-energy electricity supply by 2050. Other measures include raising water quality standards, further regulating disposal of coal ash, promoting and expanding access to the use of electric vehicles, and protecting wildlife populations. 

  • Widening discrimination protections for the LGBTQ+ community by banning conversion therapy for minors, requiring the State Registrar to establish a new birth certificate upon request after gender transition, mandating that schools to adopt policies which improve treatment of LGBTQ+ students, and strengthening hate crime laws. The Commonwealth will now also outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, public accommodation, public contracting, apprenticeship programs, housing, banking, and insurance. 

  • Repealing racially discriminatory Acts of Assembly. The injustices in these old laws included de jure school segregation and housing discrimination, as well as restrictions on African Americans relating to voting, public transportation, medical care, public documents, and public facilities.

  • Providing additional food insecurity and housing protections by expanding eligibility for the housing choice voucher tax credit and food stamps, providing school lunches for children who cannot afford them, and funding grocery stores and small food retailers to better serve underserved areas. Newly enacted legislation also provides short-term stays on court actions for eviction or foreclosure for Virginians who were furloughed due to a federal government shutdown or lost their jobs due to a State of Emergency declared by the governor, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

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