A group of Commonwealth’s Attorneys has released a letter to the General Assembly calling for more criminal justice reform. In the letter, the Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice (VPPFJ) call for automated expungement of criminal records, ending mandatory minimum sentences, ending cash bail, abolishing the death penalty, and ending the “three-strikes” felony enhancement for petty larceny.
“We are a group of reform-minded Commonwealth’s Attorneys who represent and are responsible for the safety of over 40% of Virginia’s population. We supported many of the groundbreaking criminal justice reforms that you and your colleagues in the General Assembly implemented in the August special session,” the VPPFJ said.
“[W]e write to encourage the General Assembly to advance the following proposals, which we believe will help keep our communities safe while producing more equitable outcomes in our courts,” the letter states.
The VPPFJ is a group of 12 prosecutors, some of whom have announced blanket policies for their jurisdiction like not enforcing pro-life laws or not seeking cash bail. Heritage Foundation Legal Fellow and former prosecutor Zack Smith criticized those kinds of blanket bans, saying that the duty of a prosecutor is to enforce the law as created by the legislature. He said that although he doesn’t necessarily agree with what the prosecutors call for in their letter, asking the legislature to change the law is the right way to enact criminal justice reforms.
“I think going about it this way is more appropriate than what the rogue prosecutors have been doing. If there are policy changes that need to be made, changes to duly enacted laws, of course, it’s the legislature that’s the appropriate branch of government to do that,” Smith said.
Delegate Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) told The Virginia Star that he’s open minded about criminal justice reform, but that progressive prosecutors are ignoring the victims of the crimes.
“What I find interesting about the progressive prosecutors is their idea of criminal justice reform has absolutely nothing to do with actually protecting victims,” Freitas said.
Freitas said he supports reform ideas like automatic expungement of records for victimless crimes, more community-based policing, and reducing draconian punishments. But he’s concerned with the philosophy of progressives.
He said, “I have voted with my Democratic colleagues on various bills that reduce penalties, but I’m not interested in this kind of legislative approach which doesn’t seem at all to care for victims of crimes.”
Freitas and Smith both said that crime rates of liberal cities demonstrate that liberal criminal justice reform policies don’t work well.
Freitas said, “Their solution has been the same for the last several decades. Give them more power give them more ability to tax. Give them more ability to regulate. They’re going to save our schools by increased spending. They’re going to save communities by letting more people out of jail.”
“Has it worked? Is that a fair question to ask? Because I would suggest that it has not,” he added.
Freitas said that he expected the General Assembly to consider most of the reforms in the 2021 regular session.
“Anything that’s a left wing progressive idea is going to fly through the House of Delegates as if it’s a foregone conclusion,” he said. “There might be a couple of people in the Senate on the left that are willing to stand up and say, ‘Wait a minute, this is going to hurt the communities you claim to care about,’ but they’re going to be few and far between.”
Delegate Dave LaRock (R-Hamilton) said he’s open minded to some of the initiatives, but the language in the letter was too vague. LaRock said he’d wait to see specific bills before passing judgement on most of the initiatives.
“I’m going to be looking out for members of general public, but we can also fairly look at how these will affect people who commit crimes as well so the so punishment is proportional to the crimes,” LaRock said.
He added that given the long special session of 2020 where many criminal reform initiatives were already considered, he hoped that would not be the focus of the upcoming session.
“I will be amazed, but at the same time, maybe not altogether shocked, if this takes up a considerable amount of time in the upcoming regular session because there seems to be a lot of money pushing these agendas,” LaRock said. “I will be disappointed if we spend too much time focusing further on what some perceive as the need to alter our criminal justice system as opposed to addressing other more pressing needs of the Commonwealth.”
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