Northam backs $50 fines for marijuana possession, sealing past convictions

By: - January 3, 2020 11:35 am

Gov. Ralph Northam asked lawmakers to repeal 98 pieces of Jim Crow-era legislation identified by a commission he appointed this summer. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam is throwing his weight behind legislation to reduce the penalty for simple marijuana possession in Virginia from a jailable criminal offense to a $50 civil fine — part of a criminal justice reform platform his administration called the boldest in the state’s history.

“Studies show that these arrests disproportionately impact people of color,” he said. “Decriminalization of simple possession will lead to fewer people in our court system and in our jails. It will mean fewer people with criminal records.”

Northam also proposed automatically sealing past convictions for simple possession, meaning they would not show up on most criminal background checks, according to his administration.

The governor, however, said he doesn’t support proposals from within his party to skip decriminalization and move straight to legalization this year. He was noncommittal when asked whether he might support legalization in future years.

“We’re not there yet. … If we move in that direction, that’s something I’ll consider,” he said. “It’s a whole other discussion, I think, as a pediatrician, whether we condone the use of drugs.”

Advocacy groups like the ACLU of Virginia have argued decriminalization doesn’t go far enough, noting that minority communities that are already facing disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws will continue to bear the brunt of the new civil penalties.

Marijuana arrests have climbed to their highest levels in at least 20 years, with police agencies around Virginia reporting nearly 29,000 arrests in 2018. In localities around the state, black residents have disproportionately borne the brunt of those arrests, despite research showing black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rates.

“We feel that the decriminalization bills may undo some harm, but also have some unintended consequences by enacting fines and fees and an entirely new system we’re going to have to dismantle,” said Jenny Glass, the ACLU’s director of advocacy.

Several Democratic lawmakers have said they share the ACLU’s concern and two delegates, Steve Heretick of Portsmouth and Lee Carter of Manassas, filed legislation last year that would legalize marijuana and set up a regulatory framework. Both have said they intend to refile the legislation this year, though, as Northam’s stance makes clear, not all Democrats are on board and it appears unlikely such legislation would succeed this year.

“I personally support legalization, but I think there are a number of people who we want to accommodate,” said Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News. “I think there’s universal agreement on decriminalization.”

Across the aisle, support has been virtually nonexistent for legalization and mixed for decriminalization. Legislation proposed in past years died in Republican-controlled subcommittees, even as party leaders, including incoming Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, have said they back the measures.

Felony larceny threshold

Lawmakers have already filed a handful of bills to raise the state’s felony larceny threshold, which until last year sat at $250, among the lowest in the nation. A push to raise that amount to $500 backed by Sen. David Sutterlein, R-Roanoke County, won bi-partisan support last year, but Democrats like Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, have said they considered that move mostly symbolic.

“If I lifted your cellphone right now, I’d be committing a felony over a pocket device,” he said. “A year in jail is plenty for that.”

It’s unclear what number the General Assembly will land on, but Northam has endorsed a $1,000 minimum for felony charges.

Suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid fines

Democrats are also proposing to expand on another area that saw bipartisan support last year: ending the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid court fees and fines.

Sen. Bill Stanely, R-Franklin, carried legislation last year to end the practice. It died after his Republican counterparts in the House of Delegates refused to give it a committee hearing, but was revived as a budget amendment. That’s meant thousands of Virginians have had their driving privileges restored, but because the measure was tacked onto the budget, it’s only effective through June of this year.

Democrats have said they intend to make the measure permanent this year, and Northam announced he hopes to extend it by also ending the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for many non-driving offenses, including drug offenses.

Hate crimes and militias

Attorney General Mark Herring is renewing his two-year-long push for stiffer hate crime legislation. Prompted by the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that left one dead and dozens injured. The package of legislation aims to more clearly define hate crime in Virginia, update the state’s definition of hate crimes to include gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability and allow the attorney general’s office to prosecute those crimes.

“We have to make it clear that that kind of hate and bigotry will not be tolerated,” Herring said.

The legislation also targets paramilitary activity like the heavily armed militias that descended on Charlottesville by making it a felony to assemble, parade, drill or march with firearms with “the intent of intimidating any person or groups of person.”

Gov. Ralph Northam also included $3 million in his budget his administration says will be granted to localities to provide increased security at houses of worship.

“It’s really in response to what was seen around the country, most recently in the anti-Semitic events in New York, and to provide assistance to defend against these sorts of events,” said Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran.

Bringing back parole

Virginia abolished parole in 1995. Northam is proposing a limited reinstatement of the practice if an inmate is at least 50 and served 20 years in prison, if they are 55 and have served 15 years in prison and if they are permanently incapacitated or terminally ill and don’t pose a threat to public safety.

Northam also proposes making inmates eligible for parole if they were sentenced by juries between 1995 and 2000, a time period when juries were not informed that parole had been abolished and, as a result, didn’t fully understand the sentences they were imposing. 

The death penalty 

Advocates are also pushing to abolish the death penalty in Virginia, which has executed more people than any other state – 1,400 people in 412 years, according to the Associated Press.

So far, Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, has filed legislation, and more pieces of legislation addressing the topic are expected. Carter questioned the merits of the punishment and argued the possibility of someone wrongfully convicted being executed poses too great a risk to continue the practice.

“It’s clearly not working as a deterrent,” he said. “We still have crime.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.