We knew back in April that we would need to return to Richmond for a special session to address budgetary issues. The pandemic dramatically reduced the amount of revenue flowing into Virginia’s tax coffers. We experienced a $2.7 billion budget shortfall and have seen nearly every aspect of state government impacted by the pandemic. Budgetary matters, for the most part have yet to be considered. The first few weeks of this special session has been consumed by other issues, such as the eviction crisis and utility bills, and by criminal justice reform.

Criminal Justice Reform

In the Senate, we have made great strides already on criminal justice reform. We passed legislation to limit the ability of police to begin frivolous investigations. We passed legislation to improve training procedure for police officers, to ensure every officer has de-escalation skills, and to prevent officers who engage in bad conduct to move from one department to another. We are finalizing a bill to provide a framework for citizen review boards. We passed legislation to make our trial process fairer by eliminating jury sentencing and to expand our expungement laws so that people can legitimately have a second chance to be productive and successful. We will also pass legislation to increase the good time allowance so that people who are incarcerated have something to work towards and gives incentives for good behaviors. The measures combined will reduce unnecessary arrests, reunite families, and free up resources for other priorities.

Some of these changes are long overdue. Our work, and Senator Locke’s Senate Bill 5030 in particular, represents a big step towards making our criminal justice system more fair and more just.

We have not reached consensus on every proposal. I have received hundreds of phone calls and emails both in support and opposed to legislation eliminating qualified immunity. I value the input of everyone who has contacted me.

Qualified immunity is a doctrine developed by the federal courts that protects government employees, including police officers, from many lawsuits arising out of actions taken while at work. A few weeks ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee defeated a bill introduced by Senator Joe Morrissey of Richmond to eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement. Given concerns about the scope and cost of the bill, the Committee voted unanimously to refer Sen. Morrissey’s bill to allow time for further review and refinement. The House of Delegates took a different approach when last week, after a series of votes and reconsiderations, passed a similar bill sponsored by Delegate Jeff Bourne of Richmond. The bill was taken up by Senate Judiciary last Thursday.

The legislation before the General Assembly, in my view, was too broad and extended beyond incidents of violence to just about any grievance with police officers. It did not offer protection for an officer who makes a legitimate mistake and had a price tag that would have cost the state and localities millions of dollars. Given the complexity and cost, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to pass the bill by indefinitely and to establish a subcommittee to develop a proposal for consideration in January. The victims of violence and brutality, at the hands anybody, and especially police, deserve justice. This bill was far broader than that. We can do better.

The Senate returns to Richmond for floor sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. A full list of legislative meetings is available here. It continues to be my honor to serve in the Senate of Virginia. If you have questions or concerns, please reach out to me at district25@senate.virginia.gov.