Spring 2021 Capital News Service

“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 bill to keep schools from suing over student meal debt

"Classic school lunch. Yum." by Ben+Sam is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Adelle Settle learned in 2017 that school lunches were being taken out of children’s hands when they couldn’t pay for the meal. Instead, children were given a cheese sandwich or a snack. 

Settle was inspired to start Settle the Debt, a nonprofit organization that pays off school meal debt at Prince William County schools. The organization has raised almost $200,000 in almost four years, Settle said.

“It leaves the kid hungry, you’re not giving the child an adequate meal at that point and people see it,” Settle said. “It makes them feel terrible about themselves, so I just wanted to make sure that we were not stigmatizing children in a place where they go to feel safe.”

Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, introduced House Bill 2013 that would prohibit school boards from suing families to collect school meal debt. The bill passed the House of Delegates late last month with a 69-31 vote. The Senate passed the bill Monday with a 29-10 vote. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

The measure builds off of two bills Roem introduced during the 2020 General Assembly session, HB697 and HB703. The legislation went into effect last summer. 

HB 697 prohibits school employees from discarding a meal that was served to a child who then couldn’t pay for it. HB 703 allows school boards to solicit donations to offset or eliminate school meal debt.

“School meal debt as a concept should not exist and school meal debt shaming, likewise, should not exist,” Roem said. “We are talking about penalizing children and keeping children from eating or shaming children for their parents financial situation. Both of which are messed up and shouldn’t happen.”

Roem said there are 27 school divisions in the state that have policies to take legal action against those with outstanding school meal debt. She said in one instance, a school division outlined the policy on its Facebook page. 

Roem said she thinks if debt occurs, schools should deal with it directly instead of taking people to court. 

“Essentially, we are penalizing parents for being poor and that’s messed up,” Roem said.

There are families that don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch but also can’t afford to pay for lunch, Samora Ward, community organizer for Virgina Black Leadership Organizing Collabrative, said earlier this month during a Senate a subcommittee meeting. Virginia Bloc’s The Care Project is an organization that is aimed at making sure students have access to school meals as well as “to protect the financial security of families trying to pay for school meals.”

“We know that this pandemic and its economic repercussions will only exacerbate this problem, leaving families burdened with school meal debt,” Ward said.

Roem said 15% of the outstanding school meal debt in Prince William County has been from students on reduced lunch. 

Tom Smith, legislative liaison for the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said during the bill’s subcommittee hearing that the association sent an informal survey to school divisions to find the outstanding debt cost. About half of school divisions in the state responded and the total was over $1.3 million, he said. 

Smith recommended an amendment to the bill that would have allowed school divisions to apply to the state literary fund to recoup debt, capping it at $250,000 per year, per division. 

“The literary fund is provided through fines and tickets, so people committing crimes would help feed children,” Smith said. 

Roem said during the meeting that she reached out directly to Smith’s office for feedback before the bill was introduced. Virginia Association of School Superintendents said they opposed the bill but didn’t provide other feedback, Roem said. She said the suggested amendment should have happened “considerably earlier in the process.” 

Stacey Haney, chief lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association, said the organization supported allowing school divisions to use money from the literary fund to recoup debt.

“It gets what the delegate wants, in that lawsuits won’t be filed, but it also enables school divisions to recoup the money from the literary fund so that we can keep our school lunch programs afloat and don’t have to cut from other places to recoup that debt,” Haney said.

Salaam Bhatti, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, wrote a poem in support of the bill and read it aloud earlier this month during a subcommittee meeting.

“Roses are red, violets are blue,” Bhatti said, “when a child can’t pay for a meal, it doesn’t mean we should sue.”

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 will join 22 states in abolishing the death penalty

By Christina Amano Dolan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia will become the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after two bills passed both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly on Monday. 

In a release issued earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam said he looks forward to signing a legislation that outlaws the death penalty. 

Under current state law, an offender convicted of a Class 1 felony who is at least 18 years of age at the time of the offense and without an intellectual disability faces a sentence of life imprisonment or death. 

The identical House and Senate bills eliminate death from the list of possible punishments for a Class 1 felony. The bills do not allow the possibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. The measures will also reclassify capital murders to aggravated murders. 

The move will change the sentence for the two remaining inmates on death row to life imprisonment without eligibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. 

House Bill 2263, introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, passed the Senate Monday on a 22-16 vote following a lengthy floor debate. While both parties reached an agreement on eliminating the death penalty, Republicans argued for a proposed amendment to remove the possibility of a shortened life sentence. 

Under current state law, judges are able to suspend part of life sentences, with the exception of the murder of a law enforcement officer. Neither bill will change this policy.

In Monday’s hearing, Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, argued for a floor substitute that would replace capital murder charges with a mandatory minimum life sentence. The government should not have the ability to sentence people to death due to the possibility of false convictions, but those who commit “heinous” crimes should never face the possibility of parole, he said. 

“If you kill multiple people, or under the circumstances under our death penalty statute, you should not see the light of day,” Stanley said. “You should not taste liberty and freedom again.” 

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the Senate bill that passed the House, said adopting Stanley’s amendment would introduce 14 new mandatory minimum life sentences. 

“I think it’s awfully presumptuous for us to just decide that these 14 situations deserve this one and only punishment,” Surovell said. 

Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Richmond, furthered the argument against the amendment by mentioning a Washington Post article on the recent release of Joe Ligon at age 83. Ligon was sentenced to life imprisonment at 15 years old, pleading guilty under the impression that he would be eligible for parole 10 years later, Morrissey said. He was released from prison after serving 68 years. 

“That seems to be inconsistent,” Morrissey said, referring to Stanley’s argument that while juries can get it wrong, a convicted person sentenced to life imprisonment should never be able to seek parole. “If you get it wrong, and somebody is executed, you can also get it wrong when you sentence somebody to life in prison.” 

Judges currently have the authority to ensure life sentences and will have the same authority with the bill’s passage, Surovell said.

The floor substitute by Stanley was rejected. 

Concluding the hearing, Surovell offered final remarks on the importance of Virginia’s step to abolish the death penalty. He believes the new measure speaks to the commonwealth’s humility and value of human life. 

“It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to,” Surovell said. 

Surovell hopes that the measure’s passage will “send a message to the rest of the world that Virginia is back to leading on criminal justice.”

Northam; House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw issued a joint statement regarding the legislations’ passages. 

“Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.”

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. -- For a second year in a row, a bill that prohibits food vendors from using plastic foam containers is up in the air as the General Assembly hashes out a Senate amendment. 

Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, introduced House Bill 1902 this year after her bill passed last year with a reenactment clause, which means it must pass two years in a row. 

 The Senate passed the legislation Friday in a 21-15 vote. The passage came with an amendment proposed by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, that would not exempt nonprofits, state and local government entities and schools from the ban. 

“Why are we going to say styrofoam is bad if it's used by a small business, but it's okay if it's used by a school division,” Petersen said during Friday’s session.

The House rejected the amendment and the Senate voted unanimously to insist on its amendment. There is a conference committee scheduled to work out the legislative differences.

The measure prohibits food vendors such as restaurants, food trucks and grocery stores from packaging prepared foods in polystyrene containers. The prohibition will not extend to packaging for unprepared foods, including coolers used in food shipments or unprepared food packages, such as raw or uncooked meat, fish or eggs. 

Retail food establishments with 20 or more locations are required to phase out plastic foam containers by July 2023. Other food vendors must stop using these types of takeout containers by July 2025. 

The bill is a continuation of Virginia’s lawmakers’ sweeping effort to pass environmental legislation, but the COVID-19 pandemic has opened a discussion on the usefulness of single-use disposable packaging such as polystyrene to limit contamination and facilitate a shift to carry-out business. 

 The Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, an organization for restaurants and other hospitality industries, opposes the ban.

Robert Melvin, director of government affairs at the association, said the bill is “misguided” and will hurt smaller, local restaurants financially, whose businesses have taken a toll amid the pandemic.

“I don't know why we would even entertain the idea of going and banning something that helps prevent the spread of disease when we're fighting a public health epidemic,” Melvin said.

Polystyrene container alternatives can cost as low as one penny a piece, said Elly Boehmer, state director of Environment Virginia, an advocacy affiliate of Environment America. Alternatives can include paper-lined containers or biodegradable products made of molded fiber or bagasse, a pulpy byproduct from sugarcane. 

“The more that restaurants start adopting this, the more options there will be and the lower the price will become,” Boehmer said. “So right now, that's the case where we can find really good cost alternative sustainable products.”

Polystyrene is nonbiodegradable and is difficult to recycle, according to Environment Virginia. Boehmer said polystyrene when flattened and shredded can resemble paper, which creates problems in recycling plants.

“It can also impact and contaminate our paper recycling and things that we actually can recycle,” Boehmer said.

Polystyrene can take 500 years to biodegrade and some items never do, making its way to riverways and oceans, according to Environment Virginia.

Expanded polystyrene foam can break down into microparticles, which is harmful to the environment and wildlife and detrimental to human health, Boehmer said. Polystyrene contains styrene, known to be toxic and probably carcinogenic, according to a study published in 2018. 

“The toxic chemicals from it can leach into food and drink and then be ingested. And this is especially of issue when the containers are hot,” Boehmer said. “When you get your coffee, that's when you're more likely to get a lot of the toxic chemicals from this product.”

Melvin said the switch to non polystyrene containers will drive up restaurants’ costs in the long run.

“That adds up quickly,” he said, “especially when you're dealing with large numbers of food containers.”

Food vendors may be granted a one year exemption from the ban if they demonstrate “undue economic hardship,” such as inability to afford polystyrene container alternatives, according to the bill. Vendors may be granted further exemptions if they can prove continuing hardship.

Instead of a polystyrene ban, Melvin said there should be more studies on the recyclability of polystyrene, such as advanced recycling.

Advanced recycling, also known as chemical recycling, refers to chemical processes that convert plastics into their original building blocks, for future development of new plastic products.

Senate Bill 1164, sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, seeks to define chemical recycling as a manufacturing industry rather than a solid waste industry. The bill is nearing its third reading in the House after passing the Senate with strong support.

A House bill redefining chemical recycling died after Del. Kenneth R. Plum, D-Reston, requested his bill be stricken from a committee docket. 

Opponents of Carr’s bill spoke against the polystyrene container prohibition at a Senate subcommittee meeting. They said recycling polystyrene is economically feasible and is being done across the country. There are plans to build a chemical recycling facility in Cumberland County.

While polystyrene can be processed by chemical recycling, some environmental advocacy groups are wary of the practice. A report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a group that works to find waste and pollution solutions, concluded chemical recycling will worsen the plastic waste crisis and that local governments should focus on reducing plastic pollution by transitioning to zero waste systems.

Carr said her bill is tied to SB 1164, which she said has overwhelming Senate support. However, she said chemical recycling and a polystyrene prohibition can coexist in the commonwealth. 

“It is not in conflict with any recycling manufacturing efforts,” Carr said. “There's ample time for our restaurants to accommodate, with lots of products that are available and affordable.”

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.

 

House Advances Legislation Recognizing Water as Human Right

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- The city of Petersburg made headlines last year when the city disconnected water service to non-paying residents preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Del. Lashrecse D. Aird, D-Petersburg, criticized the city’s action as “inhumane” and the dispute reached Virginia Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, who in a letter ordered the city to restore service to 150 residences that still didn’t have water last May.

Aird introduced House Joint Resolution 538 to ensure no person in the commonwealth is denied access to water. The measure recognizes the access to clean, affordable water as a human right.

The Virginia House of Delegates advanced the measure in a 61-33 vote mainly along party lines, with six Republicans voting for the bill. The resolution now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.

Aird said the resolution lays out the foundation for future substantial policies. If passed, the next step will be turning the legislative recommendations into concrete legislation.

 “We can begin to frame policies that really make it so that we're humanizing hardship,” Aird said. “And we're taking an approach that is trying to put the safety and wellness of people first.”

The measure calls for a statewide water affordability program and decriminalizing water utilities’ nonpayments. It stresses that state agencies implement strategies to limit water contamination and pollution by residents and industries.

Aird said the resolution developed after meeting with families who had their water disconnected or are actively disconnected from water service. She experienced challenges to water access first hand growing up. 

“Unless you've actually lived that life and you've experienced it, you don't really fully recognize how much of a hardship this is,” Aird said. “And so for me, it's personal. It’s deeply a matter and sense of urgency.”

Numerous studies show race and socioeconomic disparities in water affordability and accessibility. Racist discriminatory practices, such as residential segregation, have long-lasting effects on Black communities’ water access and infrastructure, according to a 2019 report by the Thurgood Marshall Institute at The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. 

Aird also sponsors HJR 537, which declares racism a public health crisis. She said social determinants of health can be found everywhere, from schools and hospitals to water access.

A U.S. Water Alliance report stated Black and Latino households are nearly twice as likely to not have complete indoor plumbing compared to white households. That number soars to 19 times as likely for Native American households.

Many communities in the Central Appalachian region, which include parts of Southwest Virginia, are without basic water and sewer infrastructure, according to a 2011 United Nations report. Two-thirds of homes in West Virginia and Southern Virginia discharged raw sewage, which is water containing excrement and debris, directly into streams and ground surfaces.

Oliver wrote in his letter that Petersburg residents struggle with poverty and obesity, factors that increase risks of severe illness from the pandemic. He said people need running water to keep a sanitary residence and to reduce risks from the pandemic.

Moratoria on utility disconnections, such as water, reduce COVID-19 infections by nearly 4% and mortality rate by more than 7%, according to a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Jorge Aguilar, southern region director of Food & Water Watch, an environmental organization, said safe access to water is essential to human health and the state must invest in upgrading water infrastructures.

“This declaration of water as a human right is a good first step in signaling that the state is committing itself to tackling the long term challenges of the water crisis,” Aguilar said, “and ensuring that Virginians have access to clean safe, affordable water now and in the future.”

If the bill is enacted, Virginia will join states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California, to recognize water as a human right. 

The federal government does not recognize access to water as a human right, but has drinking water regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act.

Rev. Faith Harris, interim co-director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, a state affiliate of the environmental organization, Interfaith Power & Light, said the resolution can open up further discussion and legislation among lawmakers on Virginia’s water access crisis. 

“People don't think about how important access to water is, and we need to put this on the front burner for all of us,” Harris 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 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.

Bill Advances to Remove Statue of Segregationist

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- A Virginia House of Delegates committee voted Friday to advance a bill to remove the statue of former state Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square. 

House Bill 2208, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, instructs the Department of General Services to place the statue in storage until its final location is chosen by the General Assembly.

“This statue serves only as a reminder to the overt and institutional racism that has and continues to plague our commonwealth,” Jones said.

The bill’s supporters included Rita Davis, counsel to Gov. Ralph Northam, who described Byrd’s work as preventing African Americans from voting, being seen or being heard.

“Had Mr. Byrd had his way, I would never have the opportunity to be before you, because I'm Black,” Davis said during the committee hearing. “The question is not whether we should remove Mr. Byrd’s statue from Capitol Square, but rather 'Why on earth would we keep it at Capitol Square?'”

 Speaker of the House Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield, indicated during the hearing that the League of Women Voters also supported the bill.

The five Republicans serving on the committee voted against the measure.

Byrd, a Democrat, served as Virginia’s governor from 1926 to 1930 and as a U.S. senator from 1933 to 1965. He strongly opposed desegregation of public schools and led a “massive resistance” campaign in the South against the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, according to documents from Old Dominion University’s Desegregation of Virginia Education collection. His statue was erected in Richmond’s Capitol Square in 1976 after his death in 1966.

Debate around the statue’s removal began last session, when Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, introduced a bill to remove it, though the bill was ultimately stricken from the docket. The General Assembly passed legislation last year allowing local governments to remove Confederate monuments. The removal of statues in Richmond was accelerated following protests after George Floyd died in the custody of a Minneappolis police officer who has since been charged with second-degree murder.

The Department of General Services estimates the removal to 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.

The Rules Committee passed the measure on a 13-5 vote. The bill now heads to the House floor for consideration.

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