Va. Gov. Plans Radical Changes to Criminal Justice System

Northam eyeing death penalty repeal, felon enfranchisement

Ralph Northam
Ralph Northam / Getty Images
January 14, 2021

Virginia governor Ralph Northam (D.) on Wednesday pushed his party to give voting rights to felons and make their state the first in the South to abolish the death penalty.

The proposals, which came during Northam's State of the Commonwealth address, follow a marathon special session in which the Democrat-controlled state legislature passed a slate of criminal justice-related laws, largely in reaction to the death of George Floyd and ensuing nationwide protests this summer.

On Wednesday, Northam called on his party to go further, pressing for automatic restoration of felons' voting rights upon release, legalized marijuana, and an end to the state's death penalty, which Northam called inequitable and unfair.

Virginia Democrats have moved quickly to make Northam's proposals a reality, introducing a bill to legislatively abolish the death penalty. If Virginia Democrats pass the bill—they control a majority of the seats in both houses of the state legislature—they will make their state the fifth to end capital punishment by law or moratorium in just five years, and the first in the South to do so.

The proposed changes to the criminal justice system come as residents of cities like Virginia Beach and Richmond raise concerns about rising crime, and as cities across the nation experience a surge of assaults and murders. In spite of these issues, state Democrats appear eager for further "reforms"—a reflection of a broader trend in progressive jurisdictions across the country, as politicians from district attorneys up to the incoming presidential administration agitate for major changes to the criminal justice system.

A bevy of other bills is likely to get traction, including proposals to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, end the use of private prisons, and repeal felony penalties for drug possession. House majority leader Charniele Herring has indicated that expunging past criminal convictions is a top priority of hers going into the new legislative session.

Other proposals, particularly the felon re-enfranchisement plan, would require an amendment to the state's constitution. But it would enshrine in law the practice of not only Northam but predecessor and possible successor Terry McAuliffe, who manually restored voting rights to more than 200,000 felons, including some serious offenders still in prison.

State senator John Cosgrove, who delivered one of two GOP rebuttals to Northam's speech, condemned the proposed changes in his remarks.

"Democrats are spearheading a new initiative to end mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes," Cosgrove said. "These policies were enacted to fight crime and they worked. Unilaterally abandoning proven measures that have made Virginia safer for all its citizens endangers our neighborhoods and our quality of life."

Northam's proposed changes would build on momentum from the special session at the end of last year. That meeting passed a budget, but also a package of changes, including banning no-knock warrants, giving civilian oversight boards subpoena power, and mandating racial bias and de-escalation training for police officers.

Those changes, in turn, are part of a wave of legislative and municipal efforts to impose progressive priorities on the criminal justice system that has gained steam since the summer's protests and riots.

That trend has included the election of "progressive prosecutors," such as Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano, elected with the backing of progressive billionaire George Soros. But it's also involved national elected Democrats—Northam's push to abolish capital punishment mirrors the efforts of congressional Democrats and President-elect Joe Biden.

Many of the most recent changes, including the slashing of police budgets in major metros from New York to Los Angeles, have happened at the same time as a surge in assaults and homicides in the country's major metros. Murder rates rose 37 percent across 57 major cities in 2020, an alarming spike that was likely linked to the anti-police protests that swept the nation over the summer, draining police resources and resulting in nearly 600 outbreaks of violence.