Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is promising sweeping changes to the state's criminal justice reforms that include decriminalizing marijuana, softening the penalties for people caught stealing smaller-dollar items, and reducing the number of Virginians whose driver's licenses are suspended.

Northam, a Democrat, said Friday at a news conference in Richmond that he wants Virginia to approach criminal justice with compassion, fairness and mercy.

“Civilized societies must have laws and punishments for those who break them," Northam said at OAR Richmond, a center that provides services to adults newly released from jail or prison. “But justice must be fair and equitable, and the punishment should fit the crime.”

The package unveiled Friday is part of an ambitious agenda Democrats have promised to pass after winning legislative elections two months ago. Democrats are set to have complete control of the state house for the first time in a generation when the 2020 legislative session gavels in next week.

The proposed criminal justice overhaul is also part of Northam's bigger push to address long-standing racial disparities in a state that was once capital of the Confederacy. The governor has made a strong comeback after nearly being forced from office last year over a scandal involving blackface, and has prioritized efforts to promote racial justice in a number of areas.

Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said Northam is proposing “the boldest and most transformative" criminal justice reform in at least several decades, if not the state's history.

Specifically, the governor wants to replace criminal charges for people caught possessing marijuana with a $50 fine; raise state's felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000; reduce the number of crimes whose punishments include driver's license suspensions; and increase the number of people eligible for parole.

Northam said Virginia isn't ready to legalize marijuana like some other states have done. But he said decriminalization is needed because too many young people, especially people of color, are stuck with a criminal record due to simple marijuana possession charge. He said about 29,000 Virginians were charged with marijuana-related charges in 2018.

The governor also said Virginia needs to raise the felony threshold to prevent Virginians from getting a “lifelong mark" on their record for stealing relatively low-dollar items.

“Stealing a cellphone shouldn't create lifelong barriers to jobs or education,” Northam said.

Northam helped broker a compromise with Republicans last year that raised the state's felony threshold from $200 to $500, but said Friday that amount is still too low.

Republicans who previously led the General Assembly have generally favored a tough-on-crime approach and Northam's proposals are likely to face significant GOP pushback.

“Doubling the amount you can steal from your neighbor without serious consequence is unfortunately a prime example of the Democrats’ looming agenda on crime and criminals,” said incoming Republican House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert.

Gilber said Virginia's current criminal justice system isn't perfect but has helped produce some of the lowest crime and recidivism rates in the country.

The governor also wants to extend parole eligibility for prisoners who are elderly, sick or were sentenced by a juries in the years directly after the state abolished parole.

While Virginia took parole off the table in 1995, judges weren't required to inform juries about that change until 2000. As a result, uninformed jurors during those five years gave some offenders inflated sentences, thinking they'd serve just part of their prison term before being paroled, advocates and attorneys say.

And Northam said he wants to cement changes he's made involving suspending driver's licenses. The governor used a budget maneuver earlier this year to restore suspended driver's licenses to people with unpaid court costs.

Northam said he wants to make those changes permanent while eliminating driver's license suspensions for drug crimes and other non-driving related convictions.

Brianna Morgan, a single mother from Petersburg who went years without a driver's license because of unpaid court debt, praised Northam for trying to reform what she said is a broken system that unfairly traps low-income people.

“It was unjust, I couldn't go to the grocery store. I couldn't go to the doctor. I couldn't hang out with friends, I couldn't do anything,” she said.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(27) comments

LetsBreal

What's the point of this? To promote bad behavior, theft and idiocy? I have no idea what makes this governor tick, but he seems useless to me.

LetSanityPrevail

Some reforms seem reasonable like reducing the penalty on marijuana possession but I hope it doesn't get extended to those dealing. What I find annoying is the comment "Northam said Virginia isn't ready to legalize marijuana like some other states have done. But he said decriminalization is needed because too many young people, especially people of color, are stuck with a criminal record due to simple marijuana possession charge. "

If you want to eliminate penalties because of a libertarian reason fine. Stop bringing in people of color to justify every one of your actions. Lots of white teenagers and younger people have the same issue. Seems Northam is incapable of winning and argument unless he uses the 'color' card.

4lan9

You probably think racism is over, huh? Probably didn't hear of the klansmen flyering in downtown Leesburg in the days after the Charlottesville attack. You probably don't know of the blatant racism in our schools. I know for certain my black friends get HOUNDED by the police for not being 'good ole boys'

I think Northam has found a way to own the Trumpkins...

ace10

Proud of his admitted racist past and stance on post-birth abortion, are we?

Merp

"Post birth abortion"...do you even think about what you're saying before yapping? There is literally- physically- no such thing.

ace10

Governor Coonman has made his position perfectly clear on murdering a baby after it has been born. I'm sorry that you can't or won't educate yourself on the subject. There's no cute way to frame this as a "woman's health" issue or "reproductive rights." This guy is an evil man.

Jeanne T

Why?

workhardgetahead

WRONG AGAIN!!

More Cowbell

Why not just do away with court fines and jail time.

4lan9

Fines ensure that consequences are not equal among the classes. $1000 to a PM of a govt contractor is not the same as $1000 to a grocery store clerk.

I've said it before, I'll say it again:. Community service should replace monetary punishment. 100hrs is the same no matter who you are.

Lawman

Right on que a whining Gunneck and Trumper with the same old dried up comments. Don't like the new Virginia, move to Alabama. Never going back to the old racist pro-gun no regulation days that allowed massacres and discrimination to stand. New day, new majority and new laws.

ace10

You're probably one of those morons who think "gun free" zones make people more safe. Am I right?

November Blue Wave

No need to move to Alabama. West Virginia is closer and just as crazy conservative. They vie with Alabama for the nation's lowest level of educational attainment.

Jeanne T

Yep, they are so inferior to you.

Matthew

You do realize Lawman the people you constantly call racists with absolutely no justification would never have even thought about wearing blackface nor a KKK clown costume, yet you whole heartedly support our very racist governor and his fellow band of clan members. This speaks volumes ...

RoundHillGuy

Lawman, again, our governor has worn blackface like an 1800's minstral show and also posed with a klan member, no amount of misdirection from you can erase that. You dems own it and also own the fact that you did not rally for his removal from office.

Chris McHale

It's a good thing the description of the photo notes which guy is him. For a second I thought he was the one on the right.

WesternSky

He should lower the drinking age for beer to 18 while he's at it.

November Blue Wave

The federal government determined many years ago that federal highway funds would be withheld from states that did not raise their drinking age to 21.

Jeanne T

And yet one can join the military and die in war at age 18. Does that seem right to you?

ace10

That's right Virginia, the (D)s want to punish the law-abiding residents who follow the already rigorous and even onerous gun laws and simply want to protect themselves and their families, while lessening and even removing punishments for those who break the law. You simply cannot make this stuff up. Governor Coonman and the rest of these (D)s have zero interest in your safety. This agenda is some truly evil stuff.

Loudoun4Trump

This guy spends his whole term trying to cover up for his klansman past....very transparent....by the way, he is late to the party, President Trump has already past reform in this area, something Obama and a democrat controlled house and senate couldn't pass.....amazing.....

Duncan Idaho

You can't it go, can you?

workhardgetahead

What? Proofread before you post!

Jeanne T

Did it happen?

Matthew

It's called facts Idaho, something that seems to confuse our extreme alt-left here in Loudoun. I was a democratic voter when I lived in the Midwest, but quickly changed to an independent once I saw how extreme the democratic party is in Loudoun. The difference is simply jaw dropping!

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.