Last week Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation into law from the Virginia General Assembly special session, which gives judges sentencing power instead of juries in most criminal cases.
Sponsored by Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond City), Senate Bill 5007 changes a 224-year practice in the Commonwealth where juries had the authority to pass sentences after a conviction had been made.
Under the bill, juries are still allowed to issue sentences if the defendant requests it or in cases when a person is found guilty of capital murder.
“This is the most transformational piece of criminal justice reform to be passed in Virginia in a generation,” Morrissey said in a press release. “I cannot overstate how incredibly impactful this legislation will be on thousands of defendants and their respective families.
“I am extremely pleased and grateful that Governor Northam signed this bill. I look forward to shaking the Governor’s hand as soon as it is safe to do so.”
When the legislation was progressing through the Senate, Morrissey argued on the floor that judges have a better understanding of the law and that SB 5007 will stop juries from handing down excessive sentences with unnecessarily long prison terms that do not align with standard sentencing guidelines, a practice Morrissey described as “jury punishment.”
Morrissey also said the reform will force commonwealth attorneys to offer fairer plea agreements to defendants.
In a press release announcing the executive action, Northam said: “This change is expected to result in fairer sentences and reduce over-incarceration.”
Not everyone supports the legislation, however.
Several Republican Senators spoke against the bill before it passed the chamber along party lines, arguing it would disrupt civil court cases and throw the state judicial system out of balance.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) said multiple commonwealth attorneys had approached him voicing their resistance to the legislation.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, does not support the reform either.
“The justice system has long been based on having a jury of your peers [judge the accused],” Schrad said in an interview with The Virginia Star. “The logic that the General Assembly has used here is that the judge knows the law better than the jury, but that goes against the principles we have had in law for a long time.
“So, we’re not fans of it, but it is beyond the scope of authority for law enforcement, it’s passed our involvement in the system.”
Schrad also pointed out that the rationale of judges knowing more about the law than juries, and therefore being able to issue fairer or better sentences, is ironic when considering civilian oversight bodies and its citizen members judging police conduct instead of the police chiefs themselves.
When the legislation is enacted on July 1, 2021, Kentucky will be the only state to still use jury convictions and sentencing.
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